We created this award to honor Mignon Waterman’s life and legacy. Mignon was one of our founding trustees and served as board secretary from 2013 to 2017. When she passed away in 2017, we wanted to honor her contribution to the Foundation and her career-long commitment to improving behavioral health in the state. Each year, we use this award to highlight an individual who, like Mignon, has made outstanding contributions to innovation, leadership, and partnership development in the behavioral health field.
This year, it is our honor to recognize Jim FitzGerald, CEO of Intermountain and the ChildWise Institute. The Behavioral Health Alliance of Montana nominated Jim for the award and will accept the funds on his behalf.
For over 40 years, Jim has worked to improve the behavioral health system for children in Montana. He began his career in 1978 as a “house parent” at Intermountain, moving up the ranks to becoming CEO in 2001. As one of the state’s oldest child welfare agencies, Intermountain provides mental health and education services to more than 1,200 children through its residential and community-based programs.
“Jim works under the radar, constantly moving, working tirelessly, advocating for families, and making enormous positive changes to the system of behavioral health in Montana. Jim has helped countless kids and families find their way back home again.” – Mary Windecker, Behavioral Health Alliance of Montana Director
During his time at Intermountain, Jim worked to expand the organization’s reach beyond Helena, focusing specifically on the needs of Missoula, Bozeman, and the Flathead Valley. He was also instrumental in shifting how providers viewed children and adolescents’ behavioral health treatment, moving from behavior mitigation to focusing on the root causes of behavioral issues. Based on the emerging science of attachment, bonding, and trauma, Intermountain pioneered “relationship based” residential treatment in the early 1980s. A quantum shift from behavioral modification and symptom abatement, this clinical lens continues to shape Intermountain’s work to this day.
An effort to expand Intermountain’s impact led to the development of the ChildWise Institute. ChildWise provides advocacy and training to understand childhood trauma, its effect on the developing brain, and trauma-informed care. Across Montana, ChildWise has successfully trained 12,000 therapists, educators, parents, judges, and child welfare professionals to recognize and treat adverse childhood experiences using trauma-informed care. Jim was instrumental in founding the institute and currently serves as CEO.
In 2017, Jim was chosen to be the board chair of the Behavioral Health Alliance of Montana (or “BHAM”). At the time, BHAM was a new organization attempting to do something that hadn’t been done before in the state: bringing a diverse array of behavioral health providers together to work on shared priorities and advocate for themselves with a unified voice. Jim’s experience working in the state, leadership ability, and partnership development and collaboration skills were instrumental in its initial and ongoing success. You can learn more about BHAM and the work it is doing in our innovation spotlight.
Throughout their careers, both Jim and Mignon worked to strengthen the system of care for people struggling with mental illness and substance use disorders. While they approached the issue from two different directions – Mignon as a state senator and Jim as a behavioral health provider – their shared goal often led them to work together on legislation focused on improving the behavioral health system for both children and adults.
“Mignon’s compassion was armed with intelligence, principles, and decency. She was pivotal in leading Montana through serious challenges with the behavioral health system, and her policy efforts to establish effective systems of care continue to this day. Having known Mignon and her family for many, many years, it is truly an honor to be recognized for this award.” – Jim FitzGerald
Jim is a tireless advocate for children and has worked across communities to find innovative solutions to providing services to those that need them the most. He worked throughout his career to build strong community systems that could better support children and families with behavioral health issues. His efforts also helped move the behavioral health system towards a more integrated approach focusing on durable clinical outcomes, supporting and holding practitioners accountable, and making sure that treatment is genuinely making a difference in patients’ lives.
Jim’s commitment, accomplishments, and life-long dedication to improving behavioral health for children embody the spirit of the Mignon Waterman Award.