Kids Are the Collateral Damage in Meth Epidemic
Oregon the Number of Foster Children Has Doubled in
the Past Three Years
By JON MEYERSOHN and JAY
WEISS ABC News
Ore. May 30, 2006 When police bust a
methamphetamine lab in Salem, Ore., they often find
children, the smallest victims of a drug epidemic
that has incapacitated parents and has flooded the
child welfare system.
there has been a 45 percent increase in the number
of children in foster care in Oregon in the past
four years due to a huge increase in drug- and
alcohol-related arrests. And that has put enormous
strain on the overburdened Oregon system.
Watch ABC News'
and "Primetime's" special series on foster care, "A
Call to Action: Saving Our Children," beginning
Thursday, June 1.
"Meth has emerged as
nothing short of a weapon of mass destruction in our
community, leaving in its wake its greatest
casualty, and that is our children, one child at a
time, by the hundreds," said Walt Beglau, district
attorney of Marion County, Ore.
With meth emerging as
the drug of choice among more and more parents in
Oregon and across the West and Midwest, children
have become the collateral damage. Crackdowns on
methamphetamine labs have created unintended
consequences a spike in the number of foster
children in Salem and surrounding Marion County.
In Oregon, 5,515
children entered the system in 2004, up from 4,946
the year before, and officials say the problem would
be half what it is now if it were not for meth. The
number of children entering foster care has doubled
in the past three years, officials say.
"The number of calls
we started getting in child welfare around meth-using
shot through the roof," said Jason
Walling, head of Child Protective Services in Marion
County. "We've seen a rise on average of 35 to 38
children coming in to foster care a month, till now
we have well over a hundred children a month coming
into foster care. And in March of last year we saw
approximately 165 children come in, just in that one
Walling said the
impact has been immense. "It has led to the most
devastating crisis that our community has ever seen,
in my opinion," he said.
crack in the 1980s, meth has had a devastating
impact on the child welfare system across the
country. Some 17,000 meth labs were raided by law
enforcement last year, 400 of them in Oregon.
The Drug Enforcement
Administration said that over the last five years,
15,000 children were found at laboratories where
methamphetamine was made. The National Association
of Counties said that 40 percent of child welfare
officials surveyed nationwide said that meth had
caused a rise in the number of children removed from
homes. The percentage was far higher on the West
Coast, the Midwest and in rural areas, where the
drug has hit the hardest.
Kids Living in a
Abernethy, a juvenile court judge in Marion County,
Ore., said the vast majority of the cases she sees
"On meth, people get
down below what we would consider the nadir," said
Abernethy. "It's amazing to me the depth of
degradation that people get to on meth. In many of
these houses there is drug paraphernalia within
reach of these little kids who are toddling or
crawling around. There is a pipe; there are in some
cases syringes. And it is a hell hole, a hell hole."
Meth is highly
addictive and can cause parents to neglect children
while they search for their next hit. Abernethy said
meth is also a highly sexualized drug. She said that
men and women will engage in sex in front of small
children, and that mothers on meth will trade sex
for a hit.
"It's a tough drug,"
said Abernethy. "So when you say, 'OK now you have
been arrested, we have taken your kids away, go get
clean.' The mom said, 'Gee, what do I have to live
Why not just keep using?' And if you're
pregnant, that's a really, really horrible choice."
Over the past six
months, ABC News was permitted to accompany police
and child welfare workers as they removed children
from parents suspected of using meth. After a bust,
the child must be decontaminated, examined at a
hospital for traces of the drug in his or her
system, and then placed in foster care.
Salem police officer
Jeff Barrett is part of a special team called DART,
the drug activity response team. In place since
September of last year, he said, "in that time we've
taken almost 300 children into detective custody out
of mostly methamphetamine houses."
children is not easy. If there are siblings
involved, social workers attempt to place the
children together, often because the older sibling
has been taking care of the younger ones in the
After one 3-year-old
boy was placed with a foster parent named Traci, she
noticed he was behaving strangely. "When we first
got him he basically laid on the floor on back of
the couch and didn't really do hardly anything. We
couldn't even get him to sleep in a bed.
get up to check on him, so I'd hear a noise and he'd
be sitting on the front porch. And he'd be sitting
there like a dog, and he'd just watch the traffic go
by. He'd get up on the back of the couch, and he
would just curl up like a dog."
Traci says she
suspects the young boy was being cared for by the
family dog. His mother, Cynthia, denies it.
During her arrest,
she said she regretted losing her son. "I'm going to
miss him so bad," said Cynthia, who had already had
three children removed in the past. "You know the
hardest part for me is when I lost my children. I
lost my whole world, and I thought I died."
Meth is a powerful
drug, she said. "One time will mess you up. Just one
time could take your life from you."
Cynthia went to
prison for 15 days, and received six months of rehab
treatment. She sees her son during weekly supervised
visits. She vows she will get her child back.
"I love my child,"
she said. "No way. I'm not gonna give up. Not like I
did with the other ones. Then I didn't care. I do
care. I love my child."
In Oregon many
mothers struggle to get their children back. Every
Tuesday they come to Abernethy's drug court and talk
about what it is like to lose a child to meth.
"It was the most
heartbreaking moment of my life because I had just
given birth two days before and they took her from
me," said one young mother, Kaitlyn. "The first week
or so I lost everybody that had cared or respected
or anything. I didn't want to live anymore. I hurt
my daughter, I hurt my son, I hurt my husband, I
believes that if possible, it is important to try to
rehabilitate the women and try to reunite the
families. The consequences are dire if they fail.
"We are going to have another child on our hands who
is going to cost society millions of dollars in
special medical services, special education
services, juvenile delinquency and prison," she
methamphetamine has made it harder to reunite
families once the child is taken. The federal
Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, enacted as
babies born to crack users were crowding foster
care, requires states to begin terminating parental
rights if a child has spent 15 out of 22 months in
foster care. It was intended to keep children from
languishing in foster homes. But rehabilitation for
methamphetamine often takes longer than other drugs,
and parents fall behind.
Traci and her
sister-in-law, also a foster mother, have taken care
of more than 40 children in the past three years,
most in the system due to methamphetamine. Traci
wonders why there are not more foster and adoptive
parents willing to step up.
"I don't think people
realize right here in the United States how many
kids are available for adoption. They're always
looking outside the states, thinking there is no
hope, how can they adopt. But there are really a lot
of kids available to adopt," she said.
With the severe
shortage of foster homes in Salem, local leaders
came together to issue their own call to action.
Businessman Dick Withnell led the charge, inviting
religious leaders to a breakfast meeting last fall.
"We brought together
the faith community and we made an ask: Will you
provide additional foster care homes?" said Withnell.
"The ask was for an additional 75 homes, but the ask
was actually for an additional 250."
As a result, the
Salem Alliance Church, which serves nearly 3,000
people, got involved.
"If a community
doesn't care about their children, we don't deserve
to be called a community," said John Stumbo, the
church's head pastor. "If a neighborhood doesn't
care about their children, we're not a neighborhood.
And if a church doesn't care about the children or
the neighborhood, what are we calling ourselves a
church for? That's not a church of Christ."
In the past few
months, the church has recruited and helped train
the 75 new foster families from its pews, and said
they would have 100 by summer. It is making a
difference in one community where meth has taken its
"It's pretty easy to
have the excuse that it's the government's problem.
Let the government take care of it. Even churches
can use that line," said Stumbo. "That was something
that the mainline churches did, and we as
evangelical churches avoided that for decades.
"But there is a new
movement that is rapidly growing among evangelical
churches that we must bring the love of Christ in
tangible, practical ways to our cities. We must care
about human need wherever it's expressed. To only
care about the soul and not care about the body is
is an oxymoron of sorts. It's a contradiction."