July 11, 2005
A Drug Scourge Creates Its Own Form of Orphan
In a rocking chair, a volunteer uses one arm to feed a 5-day-old boy taken from his mother at birth, the other to placate a toddler who is wandering from adult to adult begging, "Bottle?" A 3-year-old who arrived at dawn shrieks as salve is rubbed on her to kill the lice.
This is a problem methamphetamine has made, a scene increasingly familiar across the country as the number of foster children rises rapidly in states hit hard by the drug, the overwhelming number of them, officials say, taken from parents who were using or making methamphetamine.
Oklahoma last year became the first state to ban over-the-counter sales of cold medicines that contain the crucial ingredient needed to make methamphetamine. Even so, the number of foster children in the state is up 16 percent from a year ago. In Kentucky, the numbers are up 12 percent, or 753 children, with only seven new homes.
In Oregon, 5,515 children entered the system in 2004, up from 4,946 the year before, and officials there say the caseload would be half what it is now if the methamphetamine problem suddenly went away. In Tennessee, state officials recently began tracking the number of children brought in because of methamphetamine, and it rose to 700 in 2004 from 400 in 2003.
While foster populations in cities rose because of so-called crack babies in the 1990's, methamphetamine is mostly a rural phenomenon, and it has created virtual orphans in areas without social service networks to support them. in Muskogee, an hour's drive south of here, a group is raising money to convert an old church into a shelter because there are none.
Officials say methamphetamine's particularly potent and destructive nature and the way it is often made in the home conspire against child welfare unlike any other drug.
It has become harder to attract and keep foster parents because the children of methamphetamine arrive with so many behavioral problems; they may not get into their beds at night because they are so used to sleeping on the floor, and they may resist toilet training because they are used to wearing dirty diapers.
"We used to think, you give these kids a good home and lots of love and they'll be O.K.," said Esther Rider-Salem, the manager of Child Protective Services programs for the State of Oklahoma. "This goes above and beyond anything we've seen."
Although the methamphetamine problem has existed for years, state officials here and elsewhere say the number of foster children created by it has spiked in the last year or two as growing awareness of the drug problem has prompted more lab raids, and more citizens reporting suspected methamphetamine use.
Nationwide, the Drug Enforcement Administration says that over the last five years 15,000 children were found at laboratories where methamphetamine was made. But that number vastly understates the problem, federal officials say, because it does not include children whose parents use methamphetamine but do not make it and because it relies on state reporting, which can be spotty.
On July 5, the National Association of Counties reported that 40 percent of child welfare officials surveyed nationwide said that methamphetamine had caused a rise in the number of children removed from homes.
The percentage was far higher on the West Coast and in rural areas, where the drug has hit the hardest. Seventy-one percent of counties in California, 70 percent in Colorado and 69 percent in Minnesota reported an increase in the number of children removed from homes because of methamphetamine.
In North Dakota, 54 percent of counties reported a methamphetamine-related increase. At what was billed as a "community meeting on meth" in Fargo this year, the state attorney general, Wayne Stenehjem, exhorted the hundreds of people packed into an auditorium: "People always ask, what can they do about meth? The most important thing you can do is become a foster parent, because we're just seeing so many kids being taken from these homes."
Officials also say methamphetamine has made it harder to reunite families once the child is taken; 59 percent of those surveyed in the national counties study agreed.
The federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, enacted as babies born to crack users were crowding foster care, requires states to begin terminating parental rights if a child has spent 15 out of 22 months in foster care. It was intended to keep children from languishing in foster homes. But rehabilitation for methamphetamine often takes longer than other drugs, and parents fall behind the clock.
"Termination of parental rights almost becomes the regular piece," said Jerry Foxhoven, the administrator of the Child Advocacy Board in Iowa. "We know pretty early that these families are not going to get back together."
The drug - smoked, ingested or injected - is synthetic, cheap and easy to make in home labs using pseudoephedrine, the ingredient in many cold medicines, and common fertilizers, solvents or battery acid. The materials are dangerous, and highly explosive.
"Meth adds this element of parents who think they are rocket scientists and want to cook these chemicals in the kitchen," said Yvonne Glick, a lawyer at the Department of Human Services in Oklahoma who works with the state's alliance for drug endangered children. "They're on the couch watching their stuff cook, and the kids are on the floor watching them."
The drug also produces a tremendous and long-lasting rush, with intense sexual desire. As a result of the sexual binges, some child welfare officials say, methamphetamine users are having more children. More young children are entering the foster system, often as newborns suffering from the effects of their mother's use of the drug.
Oklahoma was recently chosen to participate in a federally financed study of the effects of methamphetamine on babies born to addicted mothers. Doctors who work with them have already found that the babies are born with trouble suckling or bonding with their parents, who often abuse the children out of frustration.
But the biggest problem, doctors who work with children say, is not with those born under the effects of the drug but with the children who grow up surrounded by methamphetamine and its attendant problems. Because users are so highly sexualized, the children are often exposed to pornography or sexual abuse, or watch their mothers prostitute themselves, the welfare workers say.
The drug binges tend to last for days or weeks, and the crash is tremendous, leaving children unwashed and unfed for days as parents fall into a deep sleep.
"The oldest kid becomes the parent, and the oldest kid may be 4 or 5 years old," said Dr. Mike Stratton, a pediatrician in Muskogee, Okla., who is involved with a state program for children exposed to drugs that is run in conjunction with the Justice Department. "The parents are basically worthless, when they're not stoned they're sleeping it off, when they're not sleeping they don't eat, and it's not in their regimen to feed the kids."
Ms. Glick recalls a group of siblings found eating plaster at a home filled with methamphetamine. The oldest, age 6, was given a hamburger when they arrived at the Laura Dester Shelter; he broke it apart and handed out bits to his siblings before taking a bite himself.
Jay Wurscher, director of alcohol and drug services for the children and families division of the Oregon Department of Human Services, said, "In every way, shape and form, this is the worst drug ever for child welfare."
Child welfare workers say they used to remove children as a last resort, first trying to help with services in the home.
But everywhere there are reminders of the dangers of leaving children in homes with methamphetamine. In one recent case here, an 18-month-old child fell onto a heating unit on the floor and died while the parents slept; a 3-year-old sibling had tried to rouse them.
The police who raid methamphetamine labs say they try to leave the children with relatives, particularly in rural areas, where there are few other options.
But it has become increasingly clear, they say, that often the relatives, too, are cooking or using methamphetamine. And because the problem has hit areas where there are so few shelters, children are often placed far from their parents. Caseworkers have to drive children long distances to where parents are living or imprisoned for visits; Leslie Beyer, a caseworker at Laura Dester, logged 3,600 miles on her car one month.
The drain of the cases is forcing foster families to leave the system, or caseworkers to quit. In some counties in Oklahoma, Ms. Rider-Salem said, half the caseworkers now leave within two years.
After the ban on over-the-counter pseudoephedrine was enacted - a law other states are trying to emulate - the number of children taken out of methamphetamine labs and into the foster care system in Oklahoma declined by about 15 percent, Ms. Glick said. But she said the number of children found not in the labs but with parents who were using the drug had more than compensated for any decline.
The state's only other children's shelter, in Oklahoma City, was so crowded recently that the fire marshal threatened to shut it down, forcing the state to send children to foster families in far-flung counties.
At Laura Dester, three new children arrived on one recent morning, the 3-year-old being treated for lice and two siblings, found playing in an abandoned house while their mother was passed out at home. The girl now wanders with a plastic bag over her hair to keep the lice salve from leaking. She hugs her little brother, then grabs a plastic toy phone out of his hand, leaving him wailing.
"Who's on the phone?" asks Kay Saunders, the assistant director at the shelter, gently trying to intervene.
"My mom," the girl says, then turns to her little brother. "It's ringing!" Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
Paul A. Bové
Editor, boundary 2
517 M & N CL
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA 15260