Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2006

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From Coast to Coast and in Between, Child Welfare Leaders Take on the Meth Epidemic

By Jennifer Michael

(Second of two articles)

Once popular with Japanese soldiers in World War II, and then biker gangs in California, methamphetamine abuse has today spread like a virulent disease to become a national epidemic. Thousands are battling addiction to the drug--a central nervous system stimulant--and losing their families in the process.

Moving at a swift clip west to east over the last decade, clandestine meth labs have popped up in rural homes surrounded by cornfields, and in hotel rooms and apartments along busy city streets. As meth labs have increased, so have law enforcement efforts. In the West, Oregon officials seized 67 meth labs in 1995, and 591 in 2001, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. In the Plains, Oklahoma law enforcement seized 10 meth labs in 1994, and 1,235 in 2003, according to testimony before the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources.

In the Midwest, meth lab incident responses by Iowa's Department of Public Safety grew from 2 in 1994 to 1,472 in 2004. And in the East, North Carolina has seen an increase from 14 meth lab seizures in 2000 to about 300 in 2004, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the North Carolina Division of Social Services.

Raids are beginning to put a dent in the meth lab business, some state officials report, but they are also putting greater strain on child welfare systems struggling to keep up with more abused and neglected children of meth addicts entering foster care. Meth lab raids affected more than 15,000 children between 2000 and 2004. Many of these children were injured, exposed to dangerous toxic chemicals, and even killed due to living in or around meth labs, according to the DEA.

A sampling of state child welfare leaders from different regions of the country agreed to share with Children's Voice how their agencies are coping with the meth epidemic, including how they are addressing higher case loads and greater risks for child welfare workers. They also touch on new legislation and community partnerships that are helping confront the problem in their states.

How has methamphetamine abuse affected child welfare in North   Carolina?

In 1999, there were nine labs in our state, mostly in the mountain areas, and a few children were involved. By 2004, 322 labs were discovered, and 124 known children were affected by the labs. Our statistics on and our involvement in meth labs have grown tremendously. We've seen an incline in the number of children entering foster care, and we believe that's directly attributable to meth and other substance abuse addiction.

We're a large state, the Appalachian Mountains are very remote, and families are dispersed miles apart in some areas. When labs were first developed, great big bottles of [bleach] were used, and there were huge amounts of trash and debris, so those were good places to be because you were not easily discovered. But as meth labs have become more sophisticated, and you're now able to do it out of a shoebox in the trunk of a car, we're seeing meth in more urban areas, such as Raleigh, and in suburban communities.

Even before meth, we didn't have enough family foster homes in North Carolina, so we're continuing our efforts to increase the number of family foster homes to avoid group care where possible.

At first, [some families were] reluctant to take children who had suffered from exposure to meth. They were nervous about what sorts of behaviors they might experience, what kinds of health problems the children might have, and whether it might be overly taxing or put other children in the home at danger. I think, for the most part, through education and the support of workers at the local level, we've overcome that.

How has North Carolina addressed the problem?

[North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper] has been extremely active and very concerned about methamphetamine labs in our state. Back in 1999 and 2000, he brought a lot of attention to the first labs discovered in North Carolina. He knew, based on his relationships with other states, that the problem grows very quickly, and you really have to have strong laws and local protocols in place to...combat the issues states face as a result of meth abuse. Early on, he began the process of educating our legislators, and as a result we have some pretty tough laws in place, including increased criminal penalties for meth use.

If the experiences of other states prove true, I think the law we enacted this year that limits the sale of pseudophedrine products over the counter will help a lot. That's the one ingredient you have to have to manufacture meth, and if we can limit the availability of that to potential users and manufacturers, then hopefully we'll see some decline.

Last year, we received funding for a full-time person dedicated to looking at services for children who have been endangered by meth. This person's responsibility includes helping us learn more about the impact of meth on our children, and working with our 100 county departments of social services, making sure our social workers [understand] what meth use does to parents, and what effects it has on children, and that they're well aware of the dangers in the field. Having a meth coordinator has really put us ahead of the curve in our services to children and has given us a better understanding of what these children need when they come into care.

How is North Carolina ensuring the safety of child welfare workers who may encounter meth labs?

Our state child welfare manual, which the counties are required to use, speaks specifically to meth use and responding in child protective service cases and other situations where meth use is [suspected]. If a county department of social services receives a report of a laboratory and that children are involved, the social worker does not respond without law enforcement.

How have communities and agencies collaborated to address meth abuse and its effects on child welfare?

When we decided as a state that we were experiencing a crisis and we needed to work together, more than 20 agencies were represented at various times on the many work groups and task forces and committees--the Divisions of Mental Health, Public Health, and Social Services; all branches of our law enforcement; the attorney general's office; juvenile justice--just about everybody in state government was at the table to say, "This is going to impact us." As a result of the work we did, we have better guidelines and stiffer laws.

We are a county-administered state, so all of our programs are administered locally. We have a statewide protocol that serves as a model for counties. What we are asking local communities to do is to use that as a basis for developing their local protocols. Basically, we say, "You know who your people are in the community who might be involved if a meth lab is found. Bring those people to the table and work out, in advance, how you will work together to respond if meth comes to your community." And most of our counties have completed that process.

Any advice or suggestions for other states?

One of the important things everyone needs to understand is that while meth is different, it's substance abuse and it's a treatable public health problem. Like other forms of substance abuse, it's cost effective to offer treatment services to these families. We need support not just for what the states are doing, but we need federal legislation, and we need resources to be able to combat this issue.

As bad as it is here, I'm so grateful it's not worse. What really scares me is what we don't know about and the children who may have been exposed who we are not seeing and who are not receiving services.

How has methamphetamine abuse affected child welfare in Iowa?

There's been a huge burst in the number of child welfare cases that involve meth abuse. We estimate somewhere around 60% of our child abuse reports or assessments involve meth, and probably close to 90% of our removals. Meth is certainly popular in rural areas, but we've had it in urban areas as well.

We've really seen two issues: One is the meth labs and the dangers they present in terms of kids being in proximity to the dangerous chemicals and the risk of explosion. Kids have had some of the chemical in the refrigerator right next to their formula or food.

Separate from that is the risk associated with the impact meth has on the parent's ability to meet the child's needs. We've had several child deaths associated with parents being high on meth. One child drowned in the bathtub because the parent fell asleep while the tub was filling.

We've also seen that the treatment takes longer than the treatment for other drugs, so that has an impact on the child welfare system. Our Department of Public Health has done some studies looking at treatment for meth, and they found it takes longer, but if it's long enough, the relapse is no worse than for other drugs, and in some cases they've had more success. There's a myth that people who use meth can never be treated, that you just have to terminate parental rights and give up on them. That simply isn't true.

How has Iowa addressed the problem?

We've passed legislation making the sale of pseudoephedrine much more restricted, so that it's less accessible for making meth. We've also increased criminal penalties associated with exposing kids to chemicals.

It's had some reduction in the chemical exposure kids were experiencing, and the risks to our staff going into meth labs. But meth labs are really only producing a small portion of the meth being consumed, so it really hasn't significantly affected the overall incidents of meth as it relates to child abuse and child welfare.

One of the things the legislators created for us is what they call "meth specialist positions." We divide our state into eight service areas, and they created a position for each service area that specifically focuses on meth. We've done a lot of work through that in terms of educating our staff and developing protocols or specialized training.

How is Iowa ensuring the safety of child welfare workers who may encounter meth labs?

We've done some training for our staff and put together some guides. We have an intranet site that our meth specialists maintain that has a lot of information about meth, including a guide about worker safety.

How have communities and agencies collaborated to address meth abuse and its effects on child welfare?

We've had several summits over the last few years where we bring all the players together at the state level and identify if additional legislative changes are needed, or other kinds of strategies. We bring together law enforcement, the medical and legal community, etc. The children's issues have always resonated with everyone.

We have drug-endangered children (DEC) projects in several areas, where we work closely with law enforcement, the county attorney's office, and the health care community to be responsive when law enforcement goes in on a meth bust and kids are involved. We have both a state DEC team and local DEC teams in five areas of the state, both rural and urban, and we have two other areas that are just starting to develop DEC teams. They are very popular, and they have been very successful in bringing together all the critical players.

[For more information about Iowa's DEC teams, visit]

How has methamphetamine abuse affected child welfare in Oklahoma?

We started having problems back in 1999-2000. We began to make policy changes in 2000. It's hard to get good information on the data. Anecdotally, we say that 80% of our cases involve some kind of substance abuse.

Someone goes through and reads the reports on removals, the kids who have been brought into care, and tries to get information on why these kids were removed--what exactly was the problem. I've looked at some of the results, and in one group of cases, 1 out of 10 involved meth, and in another group, 7 out of 10 involved meth.

How has Oklahoma addressed the problem?

In 2003, we passed legislation requiring pseudoephedrine to be behind the counter. It's reduced the number of meth labs, but it hasn't reduced the effects of living with meth-addicted parents that children deal with, and with the problems of reunification. The safety factors that come about as a result of the labs have also been reduced. Before the legislation, one law enforcement officer was killed in a meth lab bust, and two children were killed as a direct result of meth labs.

How is Oklahoma ensuring the safety of child welfare workers who may encounter meth labs?

We did a lot of worker safety policy in 2001. Basically, if workers have any indication there is meth use, they take law enforcement with them. With the meth labs becoming so much fewer, we don't have to face [safety issues] as much anymore. Law enforcement is so knowledgeable, they know what to do now. The danger to the workers is reduced significantly. No workers have ever been injured, though we have had contamination concerns.

How have communities and agencies collaborated to address meth abuse and its effects on child welfare?

In 2002, the Oklahoma County district attorney called a meth summit in Oklahoma City, and it was backed by the [state] Department of Justice. This was when the work really started going.

The first DEC team was established in Oklahoma County that year. The DEC team is one of the best examples of community collaboration. They were some of the ones who first started backing legislation, and they set up a protocol about what happens if a child is found in a meth lab. They involved the local children's hospital and cross-trained law enforcement. Child welfare workers received a lot of training on methamphetamine and meth labs from the State Bureau of Investigations. Their folks trained us, and we trained them.

Tulsa County now has a DEC team project. Other counties may not have DEC teams, but they have collaborated with medical and law enforcement on how to deal with methamphetamine.

The collaborative relationships that have worked have been the local relationships. The statewide kinds of things are not that effective. To really get the protocols done and the working relationships established, people take responsibility for this on the local level.

The problem is still definitely there, but the ability to respond is better now.

[Since this interview, Bruce Goldberg has been named Director.--Ed.]

How has methamphetamine abuse affected child welfare in Oregon?

We divide our state into service delivery areas. In the least-affected area, they are estimating about a 50% impact--meaning, of the kids who are being taken out of the home, more than half are meth-related removals, and that rate varies as high as 80%. It's a terrible epidemic.

The problem began about 15 years ago, building to a crescendo in the past five or six years. Marion County, where my office is, has had in the past five years almost a three-fold increase in the number of children going into foster care.

We have increased caseloads because of increased policing efforts--a larger number of referrals, investigations, and removals, resulting in the inability of our people to keep pace with the necessary recruitment of foster parents and placements. And other things suffer. The speed with which we can handle adoptions has slowed because people are putting their efforts more into emergency matters.

How has Oregon addressed the problem?

Right now, throughout the state, we are encouraging public and private initiatives to recruit and train new foster parents. We've come up with a variety of receiving homes so we can try to keep sibling groups together and process them. Most of these kids wind up going back to relatives within the first five days, so the real issue is where we house them for this very short period of time while we try and stabilize housing for them.

We're an umbrella agency. Child welfare is one portion of the portfolio here at the Department of Human Resources. I've organized what we call our "meth response team" to look at how the work of our divisions touches the meth crisis.

As an illustration, our public health department is charged with determining the habitability of meth homes after they were used as meth laboratories. Records were being kept on that, but we didn't have a systemwide view of all of our activities in meth. Now the meth response team is charged with figuring out the data we should be keeping or are keeping and, longitudinally, what it looks   like.

Beginning January 1, 2006, pseudoephedrine will only be available through prescription in Oregon. I think this will do a great deal [to stop] the production of meth locally. That's a good thing, and I'm in favor of it, [but] the reality about marketplace meth, though, is that this law won't do anything to decrease the supply of meth. [It just opens] the local market for the importation of meth.

How is Oregon ensuring the safety of child welfare workers who may encounter meth labs?

We are training people in terms of meth recognition and protection. They are not supposed to knowingly go into a meth lab. They are supposed to go in with police, if they go in at all.

How have communities and agencies collaborated to address meth abuse and its effects on child welfare?

The bell has sounded, and communities are answering. In almost every one of our 16 service delivery areas, there's at least one citizen group that is organized and doing education and observation. It's helping to recruit foster parents. Most of these citizen groups started about two to four years ago. They've raised awareness of the problem and increased pressure on the police to get after the problem.

Jennifer Michael is Managing Editor of Children's Voice.

 Eastward Spread of Methamphetamine

 Methamphetamine and Cocaine Treatment Admissions

 Meth's Youngest Victims

 National DEC Alliance Helping Communities Fight Meth

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