Social workers must fight the system

Agencies face roadblocks in helping children of meth users

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Child-care provider Paula Deguire Reed once found a methamphetamine pipe in a child's diaper bag.

Reed knows that some children arrive at her facility, Paula's Daycare, high from exposure to drugs because she can smell it in their clothing and see it in their erratic behavior.

But despite repeated attempts to alert Moffat County Social Services and law enforcement, the problem persists, Reed said.

"We report and report and report (to the authorities), and nothing happens," Reed said. "I feel like I'm wasting my time."

According to Marie Peer, the director of Moffat County's Department of Social Services, her staff is trained to pinpoint the signs of child abuse and neglect. It's their job to look after the welfare of the county's children.

But a child's exposure to drugs in the home is not automatically considered abuse or neglect under Colorado law. Therefore, the extent to which Social Services can intervene is limited, Peer said.

For the most part, criminal abuse charges are filed if a child's home is deemed to harbor a meth lab.

It's a situation that ties the hands of social workers, Peer said. Caseworkers may be aware of a parent's drug addiction, but can't take definite action. Agency employees follow a list of criteria for removing children from homes where abuse or neglect is evident, yet the protocol isn't specific to meth use.

"If (clients) are taking care of the child and it's fed and nurtured and the house is acceptable, then we probably wouldn't interfere," Peer said.

But, she said, that soon might change. Social Services plans to latch onto a protocol specific to meth cases that may be developed by the Craig Police Department.

According to the department's administrative sergeant, Bill Leonard, a number of Craig's law enforcement agencies and anti-drug groups are scrambling to catch up with meth's increasing grip on the community.

A prominent indicator of that trend is an increase in the workload for Social Services' state-mandated Child Protection Team. The team is comprised of individuals who represent groups that work with children. The team reviews and refers "questionable" cases to Social Services.

A few years ago, the team gathered about once a month, but discussions of meth-related cases were rare, Leonard said.

Meetings run differently now.

"Before about three years ago, we didn't mention meth at all," Leonard said. "Now there's not a meeting that goes by that we don't talk about it. I'd say meth-related cases make up 70 to 80 percent of what we see."

Though Social Service personnel know meth use is increasing, workers have to focus on the effects of a parent's drug use on children.

And not only meth, but a number of other harmful drugs such as alcohol have long been responsible for child abuse and neglect, said Beverly Counts, a child welfare coordinator.

Disheveled homes and chaotic behavior from clients -- which can be telltale signs of meth use -- aren't always indicative of drug abuse. And child abuse or neglect can't always be traced to drugs, Counts said.

"There's lots of sexual abuse that goes on when there's no substance abuse," she said.

Counts said it might be more accurate to compare the numbers of alcohol-related arrests to meth busts for a clearer picture of Moffat County's meth problem

Only a few of Craig homes have been identified as meth labs in recent years, but Counts estimated hundreds of citations for alcohol-related crimes.

"To say meth is rampant here, you have to look at the numbers," she said. "There's far more numbers of abuse and neglect when alcohol or marijuana are used."

But there's a growing amount of research to suggest that children who are exposed to meth manufacturing or the use the drug in the home are susceptible to harmful secondhand effects.

Children whose parents or guardians produce or abuse meth typically lack proper immunizations, medical care, dental care and necessities such as food, water and shelter, as stated in a report by the National Drug Intelligence Center.

Those are just a few of the concerns Reed has for the children in her care. Though the law doesn't agree, the secondhand effects of parents using meth around children "absolutely is child abuse," she said.

"Children have no choice," Reed said. "I'm frustrated because I know how bad meth is getting here and it feels like there's nothing we can do about it."

Reed sees "child abuse" in many forms.

Once she was charged with caring for a baby who cried endlessly and went for days without taking a bottle. Reed recalls another instance when she stayed up all night with two children who were too wired to sleep. A child's listless or hyper behavior and below-normal assessments can be other indicators a child is exposed to drugs, Reed said. Many of the children in Reed's care receive assistance from Social Services.

"Sometimes you can just tell they're coming down from a high," she said.

Peer said the job of Social Services is to be a voice for children for the "wide range of reasons that parents don't take care of their children."

She agrees the agency should have a better plan to deal with parent's meth use and in the event that children are discovered to be living in a meth lab. To date, Social Services haven't had to remove a child from a house that harbored a meth lab, Peer said.

"The real issue for us is to be ready should that occur," she said. "Maybe that will be part of our process -- to get up to speed."

The state of Wyoming recently made it a crime for children to come into contact with any amount of meth. Parents and guardians who violate the law face a $5,000 fine or up to five years in jail.

That kind of legislation would make it easier to protect children from the drug, Leonard said.

"We have no leverage to get families now," he said. "What we need is a law on the books that says using meth around children is child abuse."

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