Imagine what it's like being a child in meth house. Mom got you up late for school, but that's all right, because that happens a lot. Dad is still in bed, but he often is. There's no real breakfast, but you get a handful of crackers and settle in front of the TV to watch cartoons. Someone you don't know spent the night on the couch. But then your house is usually pretty messy. Actually, until you started school, you thought everyone lived like your family does, but now you've seen your friends' houses and you realize that's not the case. The other kids pick on you. They pick on your big sister -- they say she has a funny smell.
All of a sudden, there's a knock on the door and there's some official-looking people out there. They're restraining your dad -- before you know it, he's face-down on the floor in the living room. Your mom is screaming, and you're terrified. They take your dad away and start talking to your mom. What if they take your mom away, too? Who's going to take care of you? Your parents may not be like everyone else's parents, but, to you, they're still Mom and Dad. If they're gone, you won't know what to do.
For years, Karen Winston has provided care for meth-impacted families through Casey Family Partners. She offers the above scenario as a way of setting the stage for the community meth summit held at the Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute last Friday.
Later, at the beginning of the morning's panel presentations, Geri Philips, a support unit supervisor for Child Protective Services, told the summit's 120 attendees that, in 2002, her unit dealt with 16 meth calls in Spokane County. From those calls alone, 37 children were taken into protective custody.
Philips also dealt with 16 calls involving other drugs; from those calls, 29 more children were taken into protective custody. And just in her unit, there were 56 newborn babies who tested positive for meth or another drug. A newborn requires at least 10 days of intensive care to overcome meth-withdrawal symptoms.
"And these are just the ones we get," said Philips. "Many, many other children are neglected. They may be malnourished, and the effect of growing up in a meth house won't show until later -- that's often the case with sexual abuse, for instance."
She added that once a child is under CPS' custody, the child tends to remain with the state. An effort is made to place siblings together, but that's not always possible.
"What is so frustrating is that most of the time it seems like there isn't just one child, there are more than that living at the meth house," says Philips. "The children, when we get them, are scared to death. They may not have had breakfast or dinner. And you can't forget that the children see their environment as safe -- even though it's not safe at all."
Children as Victims -- The goal of the summit was to establish a county-wide framework of specific guidelines that will limit the trauma and endangerment of the children found in meth houses.
To better explain how children currently pass through "the system" after a meth bust, the Spokane County Meth Action Team (SCMAT) had assembled a panel of 11 specialists who deal with the victims of this area's meth addiction on a day-to-day basis. The summit participants came from social and health services organizations in the area. Together, they spent the day trying to address some of the epidemic's impact on children. Between law enforcement and the medical community, there is no shortage of heart-wrenching stories.
For example, there was the house that had a three-foot layer of compacted debris -- including needles, garbage, razors and diapers -- covering the entire ground floor. It was contaminated with meth chemicals at a level 15,000 times higher than what's allowed by state regulations. Five children (from infancy to age 14) were living in this house.
Then there were the nine-year-old twins who were told to steal mail around the neighborhood so their parents could go through it looking for checks. Or the 11-year-old who was smoking the meth that Mom and Dad were cooking.
"These kids are not just being neglected and abused. They are being trained to be the next generation of drug users," said Lt. Chan Bailey, who's in charge of the Spokane County Sheriff's Department drug unit. He added that the Sheriff's Department tries to do meth busts when there are no children at the house, and that the officer who first sees a child on the premises has responsibility for that child from then on.
Then there are the people get caught up in the wake of the meth problem through no fault of their own, like the woman who struck a deal with her new landlord: She'd get 50 percent off her rent if she would clean up the house. When her children began developing a rash, authorities were called in and the house was deemed unfit for human habitation.
"Just think about," said Capt. Glenn Winkey of the Spokane Police Department's investigative unit. "We don't go into those houses unless we are completely protected in a rubber suit and everything. But these kids live there every day, they play at the playgrounds, and they sit next to your child in school, and they come home and play with your kids. Meth has created a tidal wave that is rolling over and affecting everyone in the community."
The Aftermath -- Not only have meth kids survived in a less-than-nurturing environment and been traumatized by their parents' arrest, but they also still need to go through decontamination.
Every pound of meth produced leaves behind about six pounds of chemical waste. Often, that toxic brew is poured down drains or left sitting around in open containers. Anyone exposed to the fumes or the chemicals must be decontaminated before leaving the meth lab site.
"The decontamination of the children takes place in an inflatable tent outside, which provides a little bit of privacy. The children have to undress completely and their clothes are taken away," said Ken Kirsch, battalion chief with the Spokane Fire Department. "So the technician is in a chemical suit, completely covered, and the child is completely naked. Sometimes we have to hold babies while they are being cleaned. It's so difficult -- it's completely traumatizing for the children. It's heart-breaking. It has a very long-lasting effect on the firefighters as well."
Cleaning up a meth lab costs anywhere from $3,000 to $150,000, depending on how bad the contamination is and whether the site has caught fire. In Spokane alone, meth labs caused 17 fires in 2001-02. Nearly all were in people's homes.
Not only is CPS contacted every time children are found at a meth house, but the children are also taken to a hospital emergency room for closer examination.
"There is great fear in these children. They are separated from their loved ones, they might be afraid of the hospital -- maybe they've never been inside a clinic or all they know about is the painful procedures they have seen on TV," said Joan Foster, a social worker and registered nurse who works in the emergency room at Holy Family Hospital. "Kids who have been exposed to meth have vital signs that are completely out of whack: They have a high pulse, high blood pressure and perhaps respiratory problems. All I can say is that we hate meth. I see its effects every day in the ER, and I hate it."
Prevention and Treatment -- What makes meth production and use so hard to curb is that the ingredients used to make the drug are readily available in retail stores. Cold medication containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine is one of the main ingredients in meth. To make it more difficult for meth cooks to obtain large amounts of cold medication, many retailers have limited the number of packages one person can pick up at any one time to three.
That may seem like a sensible solution -- but it has also created a black market for cold medication. Within the last year, several stores have been busted for allegedly selling entire boxes of cold medication out the back door.
Some of the other common meth-making ingredients include drain cleaner (for the sulfuric acid), teat dip (iodine), brake cleaner (toluene), lye (sodium hydroxide) and farm fertilizer (anhydrous ammonia) -- all chemicals that are widely available on the market.
At Friday's summit, SCMAT launched a new Meth Watch Retailer program, which, it is hoped, will make it even harder for meth cooks to get the chemicals they need. The program will educate retailers on how to recognize large purchases or thefts that might be meant for drug use.
Retailers are not asked to pull these products from their shelves, but they are asked to take notice if someone is making large purchases and then to inform law enforcement.
A solution to this area's meth problem -- Spokane is now considered a High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area -- are hard to come by, but the Meth Watch Retailer program fits with the three-pronged approach the Greater Spokane Substance Abuse Council has been applying: prevention, enforcement and treatment.
And treatment does work, even if success can be difficult to measure.
"There are many programs available in Spokane. It does happen that children are returned to their parents," said Marilyn Bordner, the program director of Outpatient Services at New Horizons Care Center. "I mean, I know that Spokane is known as the Queen of Meth across the state, so people often ask what our success rate is. Well, how do you define success? Is it that someone is able to go back to school? Is it that a user stays clean? Is it that a user never uses again? It's hard work, but it does work, and it takes an entire community."
Retailers interested in participating in the Meth Watch program can call the Greater Spokane Substance Abuse Council at 922-8383 or visit www.gssacpreventioncenter.com
Publication date: 06/12/03