7/11/2005

A Drug Scourge Creates Its Own Form of Orphan on rural states

TULSA, Okla., July 8 - The Laura Dester Shelter here is licensed for 38 children, but at times in the past months it has housed 90, forcing siblings to double up in cots. It is supposed to be a 24-hour stopping point between troubled homes and foster care, but with foster homes backed up, children are staying weeks and sometimes months, making it more orphanage than shelter, a cacophony of need. In a rocking chair, a volunteer uses one arm to feed a 5-day-old boy taken from his mother at birth, the other to placate a toddler who is wandering from adult to adult begging, "Bottle?" A 3-year-old who arrived at dawn shrieks as salve is rubbed on her to kill the lice.

This is a problem methamphetamine has made, a scene increasingly familiar across the country as the number of foster children rises rapidly in states hit hard by the drug, the overwhelming number of them, officials say, taken from parents who were using or making methamphetamine.

Oklahoma last year became the first state to ban over-the-counter sales of cold medicines that contain the crucial ingredient needed to make methamphetamine. Even so, the number of foster children in the state is up 16 percent from a year ago. In Kentucky, the numbers are up 12 percent, or 753 children, with only seven new homes.

In Oregon, 5,515 children entered the system in 2004, up from 4,946 the year before, and officials there say the caseload would be half what it is now if the methamphetamine problem suddenly went away. In Tennessee, state officials recently began tracking the number of children brought in because of methamphetamine, and it rose to 700 in 2004 from 400 in 2003.

While foster populations in cities rose because of so-called crack babies in the 1990's, methamphetamine is mostly a rural phenomenon, and it has created virtual orphans in areas without social service networks to support them. in Muskogee, an hour's drive south of here, a group is raising money to convert an old church into a shelter because there are none.

Officials say methamphetamine's particularly potent and destructive nature and the way it is often made in the home conspire against child welfare unlike any other drug.

It has become harder to attract and keep foster parents because the children of methamphetamine arrive with so many behavioral problems; they may not get into their beds at night because they are so used to sleeping on the floor, and they may resist toilet training because they are used to wearing dirty diapers.

"We used to think, you give these kids a good home and lots of love and they'll be O.K.," said Esther Rider-Salem, the manager of Child Protective Services programs for the State of Oklahoma. "This goes above and beyond anything we've seen."

Although the methamphetamine problem has existed for years, state officials here and elsewhere say the number of foster children created by it has spiked in the last year or two as growing awareness of the drug problem has prompted more lab raids, and more citizens reporting suspected methamphetamine use.

Nationwide, the Drug Enforcement Administration says that over the last five years 15,000 children were found at laboratories where methamphetamine was made. But that number vastly understates the problem, federal officials say, because it does not include children whose parents use methamphetamine but do not make it and because it relies on state reporting, which can be spotty.

On July 5, the National Association of Counties reported that 40 percent of child welfare officials surveyed nationwide said that methamphetamine had caused a rise in the number of children removed from homes.

The percentage was far higher on the West Coast and in rural areas, where the drug has hit the hardest. Seventy-one percent of counties in California, 70 percent in Colorado and 69 percent in Minnesota reported an increase in the number of children removed from homes because of methamphetamine.

In North Dakota, 54 percent of counties reported a methamphetamine-related increase. At what was billed as a "community meeting on meth" in Fargo this year, the state attorney general, Wayne Stenehjem, exhorted the hundreds of people packed into an auditorium: "People always ask, what can they do about meth? The most important thing you can do is become a foster parent, because we're just seeing so many kids being taken from these homes."

A Drug Scourge Creates Its Own Form of Orphan - New York Times

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