New program aims to protect innocent victims of meth

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JANET HAMOUS
Methamphetamine use and manufacture leaves a path of destruction, causing untold damage to human lives and relationships, communities, property and the environment.

But the greatest toll is paid by its innocent victims-the children living with parents or caregivers who use and manufacture the drug.

“There are several cases where children have died in fires because the meth lab caught on fire-or they ingested the chemicals unintentionally when the parents had left them sitting out, and were severely injured or died,” said Cristi Cain, Kansas Methamphetamine Prevention Project Coordinator with the Kansas Alliance for Drug Endangered Children in Topeka.

“We’ve had several cases where we’ve had accidental ingestion here in Kansas with very young children, where parents have left out finished product and the children have accidentally ingested it and either become injured or died,” she said.

In addition to the physical effects of exposure to the chemicals used to manufacture meth, children living in meth labs are frequently subject to severe neglect and physical and sexual abuse and the psychological harm that results from such treatment.

When a drug bust is made, law enforcement officials often find malnourished children living in squalor.

“It’s not to say that any environment where drugs are being used or sold or manufactured is not a bad environment, but there are a lot of other issues that go along with meth use and manufacture that make it so dangerous for kids to be in that situation,” Cain said.

As meth use has grown, so has the concern about the child-victims. Agencies dealing with the problem have seen a need for a multidisciplinary approach to protect the children found in meth labs.

“Some of the communities in Kansas and other rural areas have just been struggling with this issue and really needed some federal resources to address the problem,” Cain said.

The National Drug Endangered Children Alliance was formed to help communities develop a coordinated response to the children impacted by drug use.

The Kansas Alliance for Drug Endangered Children was created to focus on the problem in Kansas.

“Basically, a group of people working for state agencies and participating in community-level drug endangered children programs started meeting and planned a state DEC conference in 2003 and then just continued to meet because we saw the need to provide ongoing training and technical assistance to communities working on this issue,” Cain said.

Kansas is ahead of other states, she said.

“We’ve been dealing with this problem for several years here in Kansas,” she said. “Because we’ve become organized and we are finding out best practices in how to deal with it, we are farther ahead than a lot of states.

“Some states are just being hit with the meth problem. It hasn’t been on the national radar screen for very long.”

Cain said the Kansas Alliance provides assistance, training, oversight and resources to communities that are working to develop programs at the community level.

The DEC programs work best when individual communities design them, she said.

“We can have information, resources and sample policies at the state level but it doesn’t lend well to a state-wide protocol,” she said.

“It really has to be done at the community level because of the different agencies involved-most of them are very local with their own set policies and procedures. It’s important that they be allowed to have flexibility at the local level to design the protocols that are going to be beneficial in that community.”

Cain said that four core groups-law enforcement, prosecution, child protection, and medical organizations-are always involved in a DEC program, but numerous other agencies are, too, depending on the community

“Basically, it’s just a county-wide protocol where if a child is located at a meth environment, each agency knows its role and knows exactly what to do in that situation-what types of evidence to collect, how to decontaminate the child from that environment, and where to take for medical testing,” she said.

“A lot of the kids, even if they are not showing symptoms, will have different ailments related to being in that environment, including Hepatitis C,” she said.

“So it’s important that the children receive medical examinations and medical testing and that the community with the protocol follows the children to make sure that they receive appropriate services.”

Cain said nine counties in the state have official signed protocols with all of their core agencies. Marion County is one of 22 other counties considering DEC protocols.

At a recent daylong training session for counties in the Eighth Judicial District, 65 people from Marion, Morris, Dickinson and Geary counties learned about the impact of meth.

Bob Maxwell, who represents Marion County on the community board of the Eighth Judicial District, attended the training.

“I had heard a bit about methamphetamine, but nothing as extensive as what I encountered at that seminar,” he said. “I didn’t realize what kind of problem it was. I was totally shocked.”

Maxwell said the training opened his eyes to meth’s far-reaching impact.

“I’ve never encountered anything like this that has such an effect on innocent people. It gets in the air, it gets in the buildings and gets in the ground,” he said. “It doesn’t affect just the people who are using it; it touches about every one of us.”

Maxwell said the first step toward creating a program to address this issue in Marion County is to educate people about the problem.

“We need to get some information out to the people who need to have it,” he said, “and to me that includes about every person in Marion County.”

Maxwell said a task force will be required to establish the DEC protocols, and it can use guidelines provided by the Kansas Alliance

“It’s going to take a lot of folks-the health department, county attorney, EMS, fire department, police department, sheriff’s department, SRS, guidance counselors-to be involved in this,” he said.

Maxwell said he is hopeful that grant money can be found to assist with program expenses, although the cost of establishing a DEC program is minimal, said Cristi Cain.

“Generally it doesn’t take a lot of funding, if any, to start this program,” she said. “It’s basically just changes in policies and bringing the agencies together.”

The time needed to develop and implement DEC protocols varies from county to county, Cain said.

“Some of the communities have gotten up and running really quickly,” she said. “One resource we provide is sample protocols from other counties in Kansas. So in some cases, it’s just a matter of changing the names and then it fits for that county.

“It depends on the politics and the personalities involved.”

The longest-running DEC programs in the state are in Sedgwick and Crawford counties, where programs have been in existence about three years.

“Crawford has had several situations where kids have been found in labs,” Cain said. “Sedgwick hasn’t had as many. They had their protocols in place for maybe two years before they had their first case. But when they had their first case, it was seven kids in one lab.”

Cain encourages communities to begin developing a DEC program as quickly as possible.

“When I talk to communities that are trying to decide whether it’s a good idea and whether they need one, I tell them we started ours in Shawnee County as the result of a tragedy where we had a baby die,” she said.

“It seems to me only a matter of time before a community has a tragedy, because we know we have a high rate of meth usage in our state, a lot of meth labs in our state, and we know children are involved.

“So it’s really important to be able to respond in the best interests of the children.”

Once the protocols are developed, they can be expanded beyond children found in meth labs.

“That’s basically where most communities start,” Cain said. “But a lot of communities expand it out to children found in any drug raid or any drug environment.”

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