Drug takes toll on kids

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Editor's note: Some names (*) have been changed to protect the identity and privacy of the children involved in drug-related abusive situations. All of the former methamphetamine users quoted in this story are Craig residents.


The fetid smell of the house was so overpowering that members of the Grand, Routt and Moffat County Narcotics Enforcement team were reluctant to take off their respirators.

The once-white walls were stained gray.

Officers were there because they suspected the occupants of the Craig home were using methamphetamine.

And the officers were right.

Officers step-ped through animal feces as they entered the home because the waste was so thick, it was impossible not to.

They found methamphetamine spread throughout the house -- and the pipes to smoke it.

They found loaded firearms on the floors and coffee tables.

And they found three children who were taken into protective custody.

"I wouldn't let my dog live in that house," Craig Police Department Sgt. Bill Leonard. "My family had cleaner barns."

Meth users report extraordinary highs -- and extraordinary lows. Both set the scene for child abuse, which is prevalent in the world of meth use.

Just having contact with the drug is toxic and poses health risks, but children are exposed to several types of abuse.

Children of meth addicts face neglect and abuse that ranges from emotional to physical to sexual, according to the North Metro Drug Task Force. They also suffer health risks associated with contact -- whether it be residue in carpets or smoke in the air -- from the drug.

The growing number of children discovered living in homes with active meth users or in meth labs prompted the Colorado Legislature to pass a bill this session broadening the definition of child abuse to include exposure to meth labs.

In 2002, the National Clandestine Laboratory Database reported 8,911 clandestine laboratory seizures. More than 90 percent of those were methamphetamine production and 2,078 involved children.

According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, the number of children found at seized meth labs in the United States more than doubled from 1999 to 2002.

The addict

John* can remember sleeping for two and a half days after one of many commitments to quit using. During one trip to the bathroom, he saw his 1-year-old child sitting in front of the television eating peanut butter from the jar.

"Parents forget they're parents when they're doing meth," he said. "It affects everyone."

Now clean, he looks back with clearer vision on the impact his drug use had on his children. He knows he missed seeing his children grow up because of the addiction.

When he was high, and had enough meth on hand to keep getting high, he was an active and attentive parent.

Coming down, he didn't care.

Sue's* 6-year-old and 8-year-old children would come home from school and go to a neighbor's house for food because they couldn't wake their mother, who was sleeping off the night's high.

They missed a lot of school because their mother couldn't get out of bed to get them ready and out the door. Sue, who no longer takes the drug, said that her being asleep was probably better for her children than being awake. "You're so easily irritated," she said. "I was a total bitch when I was coming down."

You forget patience, John said.

Psychotherapist Gary Gurney, with Yampa Valley Psychotherapists, said he worked with one person who was so high that he thought his 2-year-old was a cat and grabbed the child to throw it outside.

"When you're under the influence, paranoia and delusions can be there. Anger, rage and violence can be there," he said.

The voice of the child

John's oldest daughter, now 16, remembers what it was like to have a drug-addicted father.

She's angry. She's resentful. And she doesn't think he's really clean.

"I just don't trust him," she said. "I'm not getting my hopes up on him being clean forever. He's not a strong person inside. He's a load of bull and I don't believe a word he says."

Kate* has a long history of being let down by her father.

She was 7 when her parents divorced -- something she begged her mother to do.

"He cheated on my mom constantly, and I was fully aware of it," she said.

She remembers going years without seeing her father or knowing where he was. She also remembers the times when she was with him.

Memories of him fighting with girlfriends, or wives, are prominent. He took Kate with him on one occasion when he was angry, high and driving without a license.

"We went along the back roads. He almost hit a stop sign," she said. "He was out of control."

John made Kate knock on his girlfriend's door while he hid around the corner. He ran inside when the door opened.

Kate sat outside listening to the fight and watched as her dad ran out and left her there. "He forgot me," she said. "He just left."

She didn't talk to her father for nearly two years after that.

"He never called that whole time," she said. "Then I went to his house and found out I had a 4-month-old sister and didn't even know."

Unstable and inconsistent are the words Kate used to describe her relationship with a drug-addicted father.

"Sometimes it was OK and he'd try to be a father, and then the next week I didn't even know who he was," she said.

And there was the embarrassment. Her friends asked her what was going on when they saw her father's name in the newspaper's police blotter. Worse was touring the Moffat County Public Safety Center with classmates and seeing her father's face in one of the cameras that monitors the cells from the command center.

Mortified, she ran out crying.

Kate was shaped by more than neglect. She was marked by abuse.

She remembers being spanked and sent to a corner where she'd stand for hours and then spanked again when she wet her pants, even though permission was denied when she asked to go to the bathroom.

She once broke a gun cabinet and her father picked up by the neck, drug into the living room and threw her into a window sill, while she was told the cabinet was worth more than her life.

Over the past four months, Kate says she and her father have become closer, but old wounds heal slowly.

"I thought if I loved him enough, he wouldn't want to do this to our family," she said. "I saw that he loved the drug more than me. I think I love him because he's my dad, but as a person, I hate him."

Kate makes good grades, works a job that allowed her to buy her own car and plans to go to college.

She doesn't know whether she works so hard in spite of her father or because of him.

"A lot of my convictions are because I saw his lack of convictions," she said. "I thought 'I'll never live my life like that.'"

Short arm of the law

Sgt. Leonard thinks the number of children living with parents who use meth is pretty high in Craig. He estimates 70 percent of child abuse and neglect cases are meth-related.

Officials with the Moffat County Department of Social Services say they've seen an increase in reports of meth-related abuse but cannot prove that the abuse is real.

Of the 22 children who were in the department's care in May, employee Bev Counts said eight "could have been drug-related."

"They were removed because of neglect," she said.

She thinks the laws that govern child safety tie the department's hands. "People are concerned and report it more often, but there's no way to prove it," Counts said. "We don't deal in 'thinks,' we deal in being able to prove things."

Using drugs around a child is not in itself cause to remove that child. And the impacts of drug use, such as neglect and abuse, are difficult to prove.

Former 14th Judicial District Assistant District Attorney David Waite, who left the department Monday, says training is increasing to make court officials more aware of the impacts of an adult's meth use on live-in children, but charting abuse is difficult. "We're keenly aware of the issue," he said.

Very few parents have been prosecuted for child abuse related to meth use in Moffat County.

A caretaker can be charged with child abuse if the child is in a situation that has potential for injury, where an adult knowingly or recklessly puts a child in a situation where they could be injured.

According to Waite, there are more substantial penalties for drug use and possession than for associated child abuse.

Making a case for child abuse depends heavily on the report generated by a police investigation that clearly establishes abuse was evident.

"I'm sure it's a more prevalent issue than what we're seeing at this point. I'm sure it will take time before we really get a handle on how to approach these problems," Waite said. "It seems unlikely that someone using meth on a regular basis is being a good parent."

Secondhand high

Sue's mother, Vi*, a recovering meth addict, said she called Social Services several times because she saw her grandchildren verbally abused and neglected by their drug-addicted mother.

They'd be sent to school unwashed and dressed inappropriately. "I can look at my grandkids and see they've been raised in a home where they were neglected," Vi said.

John and Sue both said they never got high in front of their children, but experts say children are in danger of secondary exposure by being in rooms after their parents smoked meth. Children are susceptible to internal damage from being around meth manufacturing and around the drug itself.

According to Leonard, studies now are being done on the presence of harmful chemicals in a housed where meth is used or made.

"Preliminary reports are just scary," he said.

Toxic chemicals are found in just about everything that can absorb them, he said. "Studies show meth contaminates anything and everything it comes into contact with -- clothes, toys, walls, food."

A 2004 study by the National Jewish Medical and Research Center reported that children in homes where methamphetamine is produced face health risks as great as the risks faced by users.

The risk of contamination is high. Children may swallow toxic substances or inhale them with secondhand smoke.

There's also the potential for explosion or fire associated with meth production.

In 1998, three children died in a California meth lab explosion. Their mother ran out of the house, forgetting she even had children.

California has a program to protect children and punish parents more harshly for endangering them -- but it is one of few.

Colorado has no such programs.

Leonard said protocol is being established for handling children found in homes where meth is used or made. Children are taken into protective custody and screened for medical problems.

The local hazardous materials team is establishing decontamination procedures for all of those who leave meth homes -- including children.

"We want to make sure they don't have any chemicals on them," Leonard said. "Since we've had the hazmat team, we've not faced that situation, but we're trained and prepared because one of these days we know it's coming."

The Colorado Alliance for Drug Endangered Children reported that 35 percent to 70 percent of children removed from meth homes test positive for the drug.

Violating innocence

Gurney, the psychotherapist, sees the physical impacts as one of the biggest issues with meth use compared with other drugs.

"If little children are present during use, they're inhaling fumes and smoke," he said. "The byproducts of meth are extremely dangerous. There are serious physical implications for that kid down the line, even with secondhand inhalation."

In his paranoia, John hid drugs in his kid's room -- in the toy box, with their Legos or in diapers, increasing a child's chances of coming into direct contact with the drug.

"Meth takes over people's whole lives where they've got no responsibility at all, even for their kids," Sgt. Leonard said. "There's always neglect and abuse with drugs, but with meth, it's so much more than other drugs."

According to a Department of Justice report, children living at methamphetamine laboratories are at increased risk for severe neglect and are more likely to be physically and sexually abused by members of their own family and known individuals at the site.

"I've seen tweaked men acting inappropriately with older girls," Sue said. "They play more with girls."

According to the North Metro Drug Task Force, pornography is almost always found in users' homes. Users often participate in bizarre sexual activities, at times in view of their children.

Vi said meth users have no inhibitions when it comes to sex. And, neglected children are extremely susceptible to sexual abuse. "Kids know no strangers," John said. "They need affection so much they'll take it from anyone, in any form."

Children, because of the types of people drawn to meth use, often are caught in the middle.

"Meth attracts a lot of single mothers," Sue said. "It gives them the energy to keep up with their kids and lose weight."

Fellow addicts call it the "Jenny Crank" diet.

The price of recovery

Sue was using meth for the first three months of her fourth pregnancy. She left the father of the baby because he wanted her to quit.

When reality hit, it hit hard.

Though her daughter was born healthy and continues to show no signs of her mother's drug use, Sue continues to fight the guilt associated with using meth while carrying.

"It's something you're going to have to live with for the rest of your life," Gurney said. "Sometimes that guilt is the trigger that makes people go back to using meth."

Sue said she has seen babies left crying in cribs all day.

She has seen physical abuse.

She has seen parents forget their children or leave them with strangers so they could go get high.

Sue lost two of her children to her meth habit. They're with her father -- a place she left them so she could get high without encumbrance or responsibilities.

She's working to get them back.

Children from meth homes can exhibit low self-esteem, a sense of shame and poor social skills.

The symptoms vary from child to child, Gurney said.

Consequences can include emotional and mental health problems, delinquency, teen pregnancy, school absenteeism, failure, isolation and poor peer relations.

"How unfair to a little kid," Gurney said. "It eats at me."

"Probably the hardest thing I deal with is when I see a kid. It's so unfair; kids deserve to be kids."

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