The methamphetamine scourge is sapping the resources of state welfare agencies, especially in rural areas, as social workers struggle with the twin problems of helping addicts find treatment and their children find new homes.
Figures in a new report by a coalition of child advocacy groups suggest that the number of children removed from their homes because of meth is rising.
Generations United, a group that promotes the involvement of grandparents and other family members in children's lives, issued the report Thursday (June 8) to push for reforms in federal welfare laws that are administered by states.
It wants Congress to make it easier for grandparents and other family members to support children in meth-affected homes by providing them some of the same resources foster parents receive. Its efforts received a boost Thursday, when the Senate Finance Committee set aside $40 million to support local efforts to deliver services to kids affected by meth use.
"Already overwhelmed by the shortage of services and treatment options to help children living with substance-abusing parents, child welfare agencies and courts in certain geographic areas, particularly in rural areas, are stretched to the maximum to respond to the rapid growth of meth use in families. Personal safety for child welfare workers is also a serious concern," the authors wrote.
But welfare officials not connected to the report said they've been facing a shortage in foster parents since the highly addictive drug — known as meth, crystal meth, ice, glass and crank — has become more widespread.
Despite aggressive efforts to limit access to cold tablets containing pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in the surging home lab production of meth, the drug still accounts for a big chunk of child-welfare cases in states that have tracked the drug's impact.
In Montana, drug use is a factor in 66 percent of all foster care placements; meth is the drug at issue in 55 percent of those cases, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. That means meth is a more common factor than alcohol, which is involved in 52 percent of cases. (The numbers add up to more than 100 percent because there is some overlap).
In one year, Tennessee saw instances of children of meth-using parents going into foster care almost double, jumping from 400 in 2003 to 700 in 2004, according to the report.
And a study of 16 counties in the southwest corner of Iowa showed that 49 percent of foster care placements were meth-related.
Drug and alcohol abuse of various kinds is common in cases that lead to state intervention in families, but meth use presents unique problems.
Meth users are much more likely to manufacture their own drugs, leaving toxic chemicals in their home that can poison their children. That means in meth busts, children usually are taken straight from their homes to a hospital, where they undergo testing and, if necessary, treatment. To avoid further contamination, the children often are forced to leave behind their possessions, including clothes, toys and school materials.
Meth users tend to be both paranoid and violent. That, combined with toxic chemicals, poses dangers for case workers who visit the homes of parents who use or make the drug.
Betsy Dunn, an investigator who handles severe child-abuse cases for the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, said she got a headache the first time she visited a home that had a meth lab. Her co-worker fared worse, breaking out in a rash "from head-to-toe" by the next day.
Furthermore, it generally takes longer for meth addicts to kick the habit than for alcoholics, explained Gayle Shirley, a spokeswoman for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Meth addicts may need as much as two years to recover and reclaim their kids, she said.
In several states - including California, Montana, Kansas, Kentucky, Oregon and Tennessee - state agencies have partnered with other social service organizations and law enforcement so that children in meth homes have access to an array of services.
Cristi Cain, the director of the Kansas Methamphetamine Prevention Project, said children exposed to meth often need medical treatment, mental health services or instruction from special education teachers.
She said Kansas counties that have participated in the Kansas Alliance for Drug Endangered Children, the training program for different professionals that Cain's group spearheads, have been better-equipped to take care of children than those that aren't part of the program.
Drug Endangered Children programs such as the one in Kansas, are now operating in 20 states. Congress set aside $20 million for states to establish similar programs or expand their current initiatives when it reauthorized the USA Patriot Act earlier this year.
Another provision of the Patriot Act restricted the sale of medicines containing pseudoephedrine. Federal law now requires stores to keep the drugs behind the counter and limits the number of pills customers can buy. Shoppers also must present photo identification and sign a registry when purchasing the medicines.
The federal changes came after 39 states made pseudoephedrine-containing drugs more difficult to buy than other over-the-counter medications.
Kansas started requiring stores that sell pseudoephedrine to stock them behind the counter last July. Since then, the number of home meth labs discovered by police plummeted, but Cain said she hasn't seen a decrease in the number of child welfare cases as a result.
As ingredients for meth become harder to get, drug users are increasingly turning to meth smuggled in from Mexico, she said.