Methamphetamine is Arkansas's fastest-spreading illegal drug problem, and it is taking a mounting toll on children whose parents use the stimulant or cook it up at home. Until recently, clandestine methamphetamine production was viewed as a victimless crime. Law enforcement, medical and social services professionals are now becoming aware of the enormous physical, developmental, emotional and psychosocial damage the "children of meth" incur.
New national statistics from DEA show that 8,000 methamphetamine labs were shut down last year, and 3,300 children were found in those homes. The risk to hundreds of children in Arkansas can be shown by simple math. For a nine-month period in 2003, the Arkansas State Police reported a total of 944 meth labs were discovered in the state.
They estimate, based on a two-year study, that 30 to 45 percent of those hellholes will have had children living in them. Even one child per lab, using the 30 percent estimate, totals 300 children. When you then realize that less than half of the labs in existence are busted, we wind up with 600 to 1,000 children likely in jeopardy each year.
Here in the 16th Judicial District, during the first two weeks of April, in two of the smallest counties alone, 14 children were taken into foster care. All except two of these children were removed because of parental methamphetamine use.
In these two counties there are only five foster homes. These were full, as they always are, so the children not only lost the only home they know, they also were moved far away from everything that is familiar to them.
As parents get hooked, kids get trapped in households gone haywire. They are neglected and abused. Their schooling suffers and sometimes becomes non-existent as older siblings assume the parental role in the family. And toxic fumes and explosive chemicals threaten their health and development when parents turn kitchens into home-based drug labs.Arkansas law-enforcement officers, social workers, courts and child advocacy groups struggle -- and in many cases fail -- to keep up with the drug's rising popularity and its impact on children.
Horror stories abound: drug-making chemicals found beside a 7-month-old's crib, a toddler seriously burned when his home explodes while dad cooks meth in a glass coffeepot, babies sleeping in the same room where meth is being cooked, a 3-year-old wandering along a highway at night while his parents manufacture methamphetamine several blocks away. Meth causes birth defects, and children living in meth homes suffer from developmental delays -- especially speech and language skills -- have respiratory problems and are at higher risk for kidney failure and leukemia.
Many of these children are isolated and living in poverty. They often have no toys and frequently don't go to school. They are at increased risk for severe neglect and are more likely to be physically and sexually abused by members of their own family and other individuals at the site. DEA Chief Inspector Robelia E. Guevara told members of Congress last summer: "More than any other controlled substance, methamphetamine trafficking endangers children through exposure to drug use (and abuse), neglect, physical and sexual abuse, toxic chemicals, hazardous waste, fire and explosion."
Pulaski County has a new policy where it now requests DCFS to take immediate custody of children inside a meth home. Before children could be placed with a close relative. Arkansas also passed a law that adds 10 years to any drug sentence when meth is made in the presence of a minor. In Missouri, manufacturing the drug with children present is now punishable by up to life in prison. Even with new laws in place, it is still difficult to hold parents accountable for exposing their children to the many dangers of meth.
As communities struggle to deal with this epidemic, the need for more intervention for these children becomes increasingly clear. The already overburdened foster care system cannot survive the onslaught of the many children being taken from meth homes.
Additionally, the majority of these children need specialized care, both medical and psychological, that will not be provided for them by their parents. Increasing numbers of them will need to be placed in "therapeutic" foster homes where their many needs can be met. The cost to the state to care for these children is astronomical, and the number of therapeutic homes and programs is limited. Researchers fear that children raised by methamphetamine-using parents may carry deep emotional scars into adulthood. Without a steady adult guiding them, they miss school and get into trouble with the law. Once parents are on meth, they become so wrapped up in the drug that they virtually disappear from a child's life.
In addition, because the addiction to meth is so powerful, the chance of these children returning to a whole, healed and nurturing home is not good. So the need for adoptive homes also increases.
How do we address this "methamphetamine surge" that is damaging children, destroying families, and challenging already stretched law-enforcement agencies, courts and child protective services? Our lawmakers must work to find increased money for programs to fight the problem and to better coordinate efforts throughout the state.
Rural communities that pride themselves on being safe, ideal places to raise a family or to retire must face the fact that this plague of meth is more a rural problem than an urban problem.
If we cannot get a grip on this situation then the statement "our kids are our future" becomes a frightening scenario.