The Meth Epidemic: Hype vs. Reality
The facts about how
the drug affects child welfare
and how agencies have coped.
By Martha Shirk
To even the most casual
observer, the news media this summer gave the impression that a methamphetamine
epidemic has created a child abuse problem that is overwhelming the nations
child welfare system. Reports suggested that meth addicts are untreatable,
that their children are irreparably damaged and that child-welfare agencies
all over the country are being strained as never before.
In every way, shape
and form, this is the worst drug ever for child welfare, Jay Wurscher,
director of addiction services for Oregons child welfare agency, told
The New York Times.
We have so many
in foster care, were running out of homes, Joy Swing, a child
protective services agent in Clermont County, Ohio, told NBC Nightly
While some child welfare
agencies are struggling with growing caseloads and new challenges stemming
from parental meth use, experts on meth addiction and child welfare say the
recent coverage promulgated some myths: that meth-related child abuse is worse
than it is, that meth addicts are harder to treat than they are, and that
the nations child-welfare system is overwhelmed, when many agencies
are coping well.
Many experts worry that
the recent reporting on meths connection to child abuse may erode public
support for drug treatment programs and family-strengthening services that
can keep children out of foster care, just as hyped reporting on crack cocaine
did in the 1980s and 90s. In July, more than 90 leading physicians,
scientists and treatment specialists urged that public policies on meth be
based on science, not presumption or prejudice.
We are concerned
that policies based on false assumptions will result in punitive civil and
child welfare interventions that are harmful to women, children and families,
rather than in the ongoing research and improvement and provision of treatment
services that are so clearly needed, said a statement from the group,
the National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
One of the signatories was Dr. Ira Chasnoff, the pediatrician who sounded the alarm in 1985 about what the media came to call crack babies. Chasnoff later said his research had been misinterpreted.
Meth is undeniably a
nasty, dangerous drug, and a parents addiction can place a child in
harms way. Some children need to go into foster care for their protection,
and an upsurge in cases might overwhelm child welfare agencies in some localities.
But here are some facts that got lost in the recent coverage:
that prenatal exposure to meth is creating a new class of disabled meth
babies, there is little research on long-term effects, says Barry Lester,
director of the Brown University Center for the Study of Children at Risk
and the principal investigator for the first large-scale, long-term study
of the prenatal effects of meth.
I dont want
us to make the same mistake with meth that was made with cocaine, he
says. We dont know that meth-exposed babies are harmed, and if
the meth effect is anything like the cocaine effect, it is mild and treatable.
Meth addicts are
as treatable as cocaine addicts, says Richard A. Rawson, associate director
of the UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs. Rawson was the principal
investigator for the Methamphetamine Treatment Project, the first large-scale,
randomized clinical trial of eight types of behavioral therapies for meth
models exist for meth-related child abuse. We know how to assess for
child safety and risks, and those lessons and skills should be used with families
across the spectrum of substance use, abuse and dependence, says Nancy
Young, director of Children and Family Futures in Irvine, Calif., which operates
the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare for the federal government.
Those jurisdictions that have put effort into working across agency
lines to address these issues seem fairly well prepared to work with families
with methamphetamine use, abuse and dependence.
The foster care
system as a whole has not been overwhelmed by meth-related admissions. Nationally,
the foster care population has declined every year since 1999, when it peaked
at 570,000. (In 2003, the latest year for which national data are available,
it was 523,000.)
Without recent national
data, its too soon to know whether increases reported by some jurisdictions
are localized aberrations or predictors of more widespread increases to come.
Tellingly, in California and Illinois, among the few states to report statistics
for 2004 and early 2005, the foster care populations have continued to decline,
despite entrenched meth problems in those states.
Meth is not even
close to being the most abused drug. Nationally, meth was the drug of choice
for only 7 percent of people who sought treatment in 2003, according to a
federal database published by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Alcohol abuse accounted
for almost 42 percent of treatment admissions, opiates for almost 18 percent,
marijuana for almost 16 percent and cocaine for almost 14 percent.
Behind the Scare
Many of the summers meth stories were pegged to the release in July of surveys of county law enforcement and child welfare officials that were commissioned by the National Association of Counties (NACo). Many children are being grossly neglected by their addicted parents, and these same children are being exposed to the harmful side effects of the production of the drug, if they live in close proximity to a lab, the association said in a report on the surveys.
Most media accounts adopted
NACos alarmist tone, reporting that 40 percent of child welfare officials
claimed an increase in meth-related out-of-home placements in the past year.
But that also means that 60 percent reported no increase.
News outlets also commonly
reported that 71 percent of the responding counties in California claimed
an increase in meth-related out-of-home placements, but didnt note that
only seven of Californias 58 counties were surveyed.
The survey seemed designed
to provide context for the announcement several weeks later by NACos
new president, Bill Hansell of Umatilla County, Ore., that one of his three
initiatives would be to gain more federal funding for counties meth-fighting
efforts. The association backs four meth-related bills pending in Congress.
Also in July, Valerie
Brown, a county supervisor from Sonoma County, Calif., testified before Congress
that the Bush administrations proposal to eliminate $804 million from
the Justice Assistance Grant Program would jeopardize counties meth
enforcement, treatment and prevention efforts. She also expressed the associations
opposition to the administrations proposal to transform foster care
from open-ended entitlement to a capped allocation.
If the counties
that are experiencing an increase in foster care caseloads because of methamphetamine
use had been operating under a capped allocation, they would not have had
the resources to respond quickly, she testified before the House subcommittee
on criminal justice, drug policy, and human resources.
Richard Wexler, executive
director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Alexandria,
Va., believes that fear of losing the foster care entitlement underlies much
of the hyperbole about meth. Thats a huge threat to child welfare
agencies that exist on endless per-diem payments for endless foster care,
says Wexler, who advocates for more family preservation efforts and less use
of foster care.
Michael Arsham, executive
director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project in New York City, agrees.
Annual admissions to foster care in New York City have fallen by one-third
since 2000. Nevertheless, Arsham says, private foster care agencies are pressing
the citys child welfare agency to maintain foster care slots in case
theres an upsurge in parental meth use.
If they are concerned
about the well-being of children, the questions they should be asking are
whether there are effective treatment models that have been developed elsewhere
in the country, or whether we should be looking more at kinship and guardian
arrangements, says Arsham, whose project is a partnership of parents
and professionals dedicated to child welfare reform.
Some Areas Hit Hard
To be sure, some child welfare agencies have good reason to be alarmed by meth.
Although meth abuse has
been a problem in the West for years, it is spreading to other regions, creating
challenges for child welfare systems whose experience with substance abuse
has been limited largely to marijuana and alcohol. Even a small upsurge in
meth-related child abuse can have a disproportionately large impact in rural
areas and small towns, where substance treatment programs, social service
providers and foster homes are scarce or stretched thin.
We find that workers
leave the agency because of personal risks, the nature of these cases and
the challenges of working with these families, Freida Baker, deputy
director of Alabama Family and Childrens Services, said at the House
subcommittee hearing in July. We find that an already strained child
welfare work force of young, inexperienced staff is further burdened with
the complex dynamics of crystal meth.
In Vigo County, Ind.,
which includes Terre Haute, a child-welfare official told the Louisville Courier-Journal
this summer that about 70 percent of children entering foster care had parents
who abused meth. In Oklahoma, state officials say meth is a major reason that
the foster care population is up 16 percent from a year ago. Even in relatively
resource-rich Tulsa, The New York Times reported in July that siblings in
child protection cases were forced to share beds in an emergency shelter because
meth cases had pushed the shelters population to double its licensed
Probably the major reason
for the alarm over meth is that it can be produced in home kitchens, which
may expose children and abuse and neglect investigators to toxic
chemicals and the risk of burns. From 2000 to 2003, the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration (DEA) says, eight children died and 96 were injured through
home meth production.
Because of the special
dangers that meth production poses both to children and first responders such
as police and child abuse investigators, the White House Office of National
Drug Control Policy has pressed states and counties to establish multidisciplinary
Drug Endangered Children (DEC) teams. So far, 25 states or regions have established
teams, and 5,500 professionals from law enforcement, child protection, public
health and other public agencies have been trained, the drug control office
the key to success, says Ronald Mullins, training coordinator for the
San Diego-based National Alliance for Drug-Endangered Children. If you
develop standardized protocols and make those agreements in your community,
the children get the medical attention they need, the psychosocial attention
they need and the placement they need.
The alliances protocols
allow only specially trained law-enforcement officials to enter homes where
meth is produced. Children must be washed at the site and immediately taken
for medical examinations, including tests for exposure to chemicals.
Although the alliances focus is on children threatened by meth production, the numbers are fairly low. Young, of the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare, says federal data show that from 2000 through 2003, about 10,000 children were affected by meth manufacturing, including 4,662 who lived in homes where meth was produced. Some 2,881 of them entered foster care, Young says less than one-third of 1 percent of all the children who entered foster care during that same period.
Learning from Others
Rather than feeling overwhelmed, experts say, child welfare agencies that are experiencing increases in meth-related child abuse and neglect can find guidance from jurisdictions with experience.
Many social service agencies
in California have been dealing with meth-related abuse or neglect since the
early 1990s and have learned how to intervene effectively. Addiction
is addiction, says Toni Moore, administrator of the Alcohol and Drug
Services Division for Sacramento County, where more than half of those who
enter treatment cite meth as their drug of choice. Although there may
be some difference in how you approach someone who uses meth and someone who
uses cocaine, the basic problem is addiction.
UCLA researchers have
found that traditional 12-step programs are not as effective with meth users
as with marijuana and alcohol abusers, which means that treatment professionals
may need additional training. Research has shown that meth abusers respond
similarly to behavioral and cognitive-behavioral treatment strategies that
work with cocaine abusers, says Rawson of UCLA.
The National Center on
Substance Abuse and Child Welfare provides technical assistance to states
and counties that are struggling with meth-related child abuse. Young, the
centers director, says the most effective strategies include stationing
staff with substance abuse expertise in child welfare offices and courts;
giving parents who face abuse charges priority for treatment; using facilitators
to help parents access treatment, and setting up a dependency drug court to
monitor parents compliance with treatment plans.
Because most mothers
entering substance abuse treatment have experienced domestic violence and
abuse or neglect as children, Young says, its important that they also
get help for those problems. In addition, she notes, We learned during
the cocaine epidemic that mothers in treatment with all of their children
had the best outcomes.
The crack cocaine epidemic
of the 1980s and early 90s produced lessons that many experts say are
highly relevant today. Research has found that most problems that had initially
been attributed to prenatal exposure to crack resulted from poverty, that
a childhood spent in foster care can be more harmful than the parental behavior
that prompted the childs removal, and that prenatally exposed infants
who stay with their mothers achieve developmental milestones earlier than
those who go into foster care.
Says Lester, the Brown
University researcher: If we overreact to meth, the effect will be,
as with cocaine, flooding an already overburdened foster care system, breaking
up families and having kids bouncing around from foster home to foster home
during the first few years, when they need to develop strong attachment relationships.
These children may wind up with behavior problems, not because of the drugs,
but because they were improperly socialized.
We need to move toward more of an understanding of drug abuse as a treatable mental health disease, not a crime against the child or society.
Martha Shirk, based in Palo Alto, Calif., is an author and freelance journalist specializing in child and family issues. email@example.com.
A Model for Helping the Children
of Drug Abusers
In Sacramento County,
Calif., about 80 percent of child abuse cases involve parents with alcohol
or drug problems, and more than half of these parents cite meth as their drug
of choice. Nevertheless, child welfare workers there have trouble understanding
why media reports say meth has paralyzed the nations child welfare system.
big meth issues in Sacramento County, but theyre not paralyzing anybody,
says Martha Haas, a program planner who has also worked as an investigator,
intake worker and supervisor during 10 years with the countys Child
Protective Services division.
Sacramento County (population:
1.3 million) has been widely lauded for developing effective interventions
for families in which parents abuse drugs and abuse or neglect their children.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, the federal Treatment
Improvement Exchange, the Child Welfare League of America and the National
Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare have all cited the county for
implementing systems changes that have increased parents access to treatment
and decreased childrens stays in foster care.
Here are the key elements
to Sacramentos success:
More training, treatment: Meth abuse, along with alcohol and cocaine abuse, was already a big problem in 1994, when the county got a two-year, $200,000 grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to better serve children who were being abused or neglected by parents with drug or alcohol problems.
We realized that
alcohol and drug use were a major driving factor for many of our health and
social problems, and we wanted to increase the likelihood that people who
were abusing drugs and alcohol would get treatment, says Toni Moore,
who served as project director for the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Initiative.
The initiative began
by providing intensive training in alcohol and substance abuse assessment
to child welfare workers, public health nurses and community service providers.
Some 7,000 have been trained so far. Then the county gave treatment priority
to parents with substance abuse problems who were involved with child protective
If you dont
have an organized system where you give some sort of priority to specific
groups, its typically going to be the most motivated client who gets
in, or the one who knocks the loudest, and that may not be the one who needs
it the most, explains Moore, administrator of the countys Alcohol
and Drug Services Division.
Through a creative melding
of funds from about a dozen federal and state programs, the county came up
with $32 million a year for treatment.
Remove barriers: The
county also added three early intervention specialists to make sure logistical
problems dont keep parents from accessing treatment. Two of them work
in the courthouse. When families come into the system, the service comes
to them, Moore says. That immediate linkage happens.
Monitor progress: To
help keep parents on track, the county got money from the states tobacco
litigation settlement to fund STARS (Specialized Treatment and Recovery Services),
which deploys recovery specialists some of them recovered drug abusers
to monitor and support parents in treatment. Im convinced
that its those relationships that families build with STARS workers
that are crucial to success, says Haas of Child Protective Services.
When parents are in crisis, its the STARS worker who responds
and motivates them.
Special court: In 2001,
the county added the final element of its cross-agency approach: a dependency
drug court, which monitors the treatment progress of substance-abusing parents
accused of abuse or neglect. Parents must appear there every month for at
least three months to report on their treatment progress. In many other jurisdictions,
they would be lucky to reach the top of a waiting list for treatment in that
amount of time.
are something between a revival and an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting,
says Laurie Slothower, a spokeswoman for the Sacramento County Department
of Health and Human Services. People show up in their best suits, and
theyre crying and thanking their CPS worker and their case manager.
The judge tells them what a good job theyre doing and gives them these
little rocks that say Hope or Faith. Coming from a
judge, that carries a lot of weight.
approach is being evaluated by researchers at Children and Family Futures,
a nonprofit policy research firm in Irvine, Calif. So far, the evaluation
has found that 86 percent of parents referred to Dependency Drug Court entered
treatment, compared with about half of a comparison group. Of those who entered
treatment, two-thirds completed it. On average, their children spent far less
time in out-of-home care than the comparison group.
Besides reunifying families
more quickly, the evaluation found, the strategy saved the county nearly $3
million in out-of-home care costs over two years.
Our approach has
made a difference in our families, Haas says. Im hoping
that in a few more years, well see more families getting hooked up with
services in their neighborhoods before their kids need to come into care.
Nancy Young, Director
Children and Family Futures
Richard A. Rawson, Associate Director
UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs
(310) 445-0874, ext. 311
Barry Lester, Director
Brown University Center for the Study of Children at Risk
(401) 453-7640, Barry_Lester@Brown.edu
Toni Moore, Administrator
Alcohol and Drug Services Division
Sacramento County Department of Health and Human Services
Informational website sponsored by federal agencies.