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Idaho Initiates Program to Save 'Drug-Endangered' Children


One of the nation's fastest-growing drug problems is being cooked up in kitchens across the United States. Methamphetamine is made from such common household products as nasal decongestant, car engine anti-freeze and lawn fertilizer. The highly addictive stimulant produces a powerful shutting down illegal meth labs in homes, garages, abandoned buildings and campgrounds, and explosions from the chemical mixture are starting fires and injuring the meth cookers and anyone around them. high, but it's a toxic and explosive brew.

Police around the country are shutting down illegal meth labs in homes, garages, abandoned buildings and campgrounds, and explosions from the chemical mixture are starting fires and injuring the meth cookers and anyone around them.

Once exclusive to California, methamphetamine production spread rapidly across the country over the past decade. Meth labs can now be found in the Midwest and on the East Coast, in big cities and small towns, even in communities that never thought they'd have a drug problem. Since 1998, Idaho State Police have shut down over 600 meth labs. Many were located in homes, with children present.

Idaho State Police officer Allen Oswald says being anywhere near a meth lab is a potentially deadly situation.

"Most of the chemicals used in the manufacture of methamphetamine are either carcinogens, which cause cancer, can cause upper respiratory illnesses, or are flammable, as well as the actual product of methamphetamine itself," said Mr. Oswald. "When a meth cook is conducted in the house, these chemicals are easily available, they're absorbed into the carpets, the walls, and there's actual methamphetamine floating around in the air. I've actually seen kids that have pajama bottoms with the knees eaten out of due to chemicals being on the carpet."

He says, in the past, police would just step over the children when they'd raid a lab. Concerned about the number of youngsters they were 'stepping over,' the Idaho State Police hosted a Drug-Endangered Children's Conference this summer. Police, doctors and social workers created a state-wide pilot plan to ensure kids rescued from meth labs get the help they need. It requires police to spend more time gathering evidence of child neglect. U.S. Attorney Monte Stiles says it also calls on prosecutors to crack down on people who manufacture drugs with a child present. "We're talking about protocols so that every part of the system, from Health and Welfare Department, to the fire department, to the police, to everybody along the way is making those children a priority, protecting their safety, protecting their health, worrying about them first in terms of what chemicals they may be exposed to, making sure they remove contaminated clothes and get clean clothes on that haven't been exposed to those chemicals, getting them out of homes where there's a great danger of explosion, and getting away from adults that put them in harm's way every single day."

Now all children found in meth labs are sent to the hospital to be scrubbed down and screened for health problems. Sacramento pediatrician Angela Rosas, who spoke at the Boise conference, says chemicals aren't the only hazards children face when mom or dad make meth. "Parents who are making methamphetamine and using methamphetamine are living in squalor," said Ms. Rosas. "These children are growing up with rotten food and animal feces and just a horrible, filthy place to live in. They end up getting malnourished, they have skin problems, health problems, and probably the most pervasive problem is neglect that the children suffer, as far as not being in a nurturing environment. They have long-term emotional problems, behavioral problems, they have delays in their development."

Children of addicted parents grow into troubled adults, according to Dr. Alex Stalcup, who has worked with meth addicts and their families for over 20 years at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic in San Francisco. "Kids growing up in meth families have a lot of trouble forming attachments. They have a lot of difficulty trusting adults. They tend to be very guarded in new situations. Kids even from a young age learn to develop an 'us versus them' mentality in relation to 'straight' society. Their parents, the people they're being raised with, view straight society as a threat to what they're doing, so very young, kids learn to grow up essentially as outlaws."

U.S. Attorney Monte Stiles says there is no way a meth addict can be a proper parent.

"When people take drugs, especially methamphetamine, they lose their natural affections toward other people," said Mr. Stiles. "They lose their natural empathy toward other humans, and children are the victims. Mom cannot take care of the baby when she's high. Mom does not pay attention to the baby when she's trying to score. Dad cannot take care of the baby when he's sleeping off a three-day runner up on methamphetamine. It doesn't happen. If people think these children are being cared for, they are kidding themselves."

By putting the highest priority on helping kids rather than arresting their parents, the pilot project gives these children a chance to succeed. Idaho State Colonel Dan Charboneau says everybody benefits. "We probably stumble across 10 to 20 kids inside meth labs each year. Now, is that a lot? I don't know. But to me, it's important because of one simple thing. I think one life lost, one kid not accounted for, one kid not taken care of can have a dramatic effect on society."

Police and prosecutors are testing the new program in the rural mountain towns of northern Idaho, where most of the state's meth labs are found. Officials say there are still a few kinks to work out, but they anticipate the strategy to be in place statewide by the end of the year.

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