SAVAGE METH | Day 2: Children rescued from toxic labs get lost in S.C. system

abeam@thestate.com and jmonk@thestate.comSeptember 24, 2007 

  • FINDINGS

    Day 2: Children and meth

    No one has counted the num-ber of children found at S.C. meth labs in the past six years.

    The state Department of So-cial Services has joined 13 other agencies and organiza-tions to develop a protocol for handling children found at meth labs. But DSS does no long-term tracking of the children for potential health problems associated with meth.

    Even if state officials wanted to track children exposed to meth dangers — or any other form of child abuse — there’s no database that would allow them to do that.

    ‘KID KITS’

    Meth child kits are emergency kits designed to help a child found in a meth lab. They typically contain, at a minimum:

    Diapers

    Clothes of varying sizes

    Underwear

    Stuffed animals

    Crayons

    Coloring books

    Baby bottle for formula

    WHO MADE THE KITS? The kits were donated to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration office by a Greenville County church.

    WHAT ELSE DOES A CHILD NEED? S.C. Department of Social Services workers also often carry children’s clothes in their cars for meth lab-related emergencies involving children.

    CHILDREN STRIPPED AT SCENE

    Any police or emergency workers could be the first at the scene of a meth lab raid to find a child.

    Emergency workers are encouraged to remove children from labs immediately, leav-ing behind the child’s toys and bedding.

    Children are stripped of their clothing, hosed off, examined and treated for exposure to chemicals.

    Children are not returned to a parent or guardian if that per-son is connected to meth lab activity.

    COMING INTO CONTACT WITH THE CHILD ARE:

    • Firefighters arriving on the scene of a house fire
    • Emergency medical tech-nicians responding to a medi-cal incident
    • Police investigating foul odors or responding to com-plaints about a neighbor’s house
    • Drug Enforcement Ad-ministration or other law offi-cers staging a raid on a house where meth users have set up a lab
    • Department of Social Services workers
    • Hospital doctors or nurses who are treating a child
  • ABOUT THE SERIES

    A three-part series on South Carolina’s war on meth

    Day 1: Meet the man who unleashed meth on the Midlands. Online at thestate.com

    Day 2: South Carolina does not monitor long-term health of children exposed to chemicals at meth labs.

    Day 3: Is there a former meth lab in your neighborhood? Is it safe? Is there any way to know?

The 3-year-old boy slept on a mattress with his mother in a room full of Finding Nemo posters, yellow Huggies boxes and cans of denatured alcohol.

His parents had pasted a “grape Kool-Aid” label on a jug so they wouldn’t confuse the child’s drink with other jugs filled with toxic chemicals used to make meth.

When Aiken County sheriff’s deputies raided the home in June 2006, the boy tested positive for methamphetamine.

“There’s poison in those (jugs), and the stuff was being mixed with other poisonous things, and it was a stupid idea,” the boy’s mother, Crystal Gale Day, wrote in a police statement before pleading guilty to drug charges.

The boy was put in emergency custody, placed with out-of-state relatives — then disappeared from the radar of S.C. child-care officials.

He is one of the estimated hundreds of children found in S.C. meth labs in the past six years who have become lost in the system, their long-term health a question mark in the war on meth.

The state Department of Social Services said its case workers are required to check on the health of all children for as long as they are in foster care. But the agency does no specific long-term tracking of potential health problems associated with meth, officials said.

There’s also no easy way of knowing how many “meth children” there are, whether living in foster homes or with relatives in or out of the state.

And no one knows how many, if any, of the children are being monitored by caregivers for long-term meth-associated health problems — even though everyone involved agrees meth and the chemicals used to make it pose a greater danger to children than any other drug.

No one in South Carolina is tracking the children.

It’s a troubling situation for some, including Dr. Olga Rosa, a physician specializing in child abuse issues and medical director for the S.C. Children’s Advocacy Medical Response System, which assists the state’s children’s hospitals and advocacy centers.

“Are we meeting the needs of these children? æ.æ.æ. Are we assessing the children correctly?” she asked. “What’s happening to them?”

HOW MANY? HOW DANGEROUS?

A law enforcement agency might know how many children it removes from meth labs in its jurisdiction each year.

But DSS doesn’t note how many of the 5,100 or so confirmed child abuse or neglect cases it sees each year involve meth children.

At the request of The State newspaper, DSS estimated — by polling its social workers statewide — that 78 children were taken from homes where meth was being made during fiscal year 2005-2006.

But DSS officials said they cannot easily determine how many children were removed from the more than 500 meth labs found between 2001 and the first half of 2005, when lab seizures peaked in rural South Carolina.

Nationally, about 20 percent of labs raided had children present, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Web site.

If Lexington County is any indication, South Carolina’s numbers could be higher than that average.

In Lexington County, “somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 percent of labs have children involved in some capacity,” according to Sheriff’s Department detective Sam Gunter, who has investigated hundreds of labs.

S.C. meth lab busts have dipped in the past two years, but with border agents cracking down on imports from Mexico, officials say the number of S.C. labs could rise again, putting even more children in harm’s way. Since June 1, for example, Lexington County alone has raided 12 labs.

Meth has been around in one form or another for 100 years. But the combination of children and home meth labs is fairly new, as the drug only recently has become widely used.

Researchers know some of the effects of meth on children exposed in the womb.

A 2004 study, done by researchers at UCLA and the University of Hawaii, indicated that when those children entered school seven years later, they had trouble in three major areas: verbal learning, sustained attention, and visual motor skills, such as learning to tie shoes, said Rosa, the S.C. child advocate.

But there is little research on children exposed later in life.

“What is going to happen when they enter school?” Rosa asked. “That’s a long-term issue. æ.æ.æ. I would like to know if, after 10, 15 years of removal, some of those kids will develop some type of cancer because of exposure or long-term exposure to the solvents used in those labs.”

What experts do know is that no other drug — not cocaine or heroin or crack — exposes children to the same level of poisons.

“Everything is harder for these children,” said DSS assistant director Sue O’Toole. “The chemicals they breathe in have restructured synapses in their brains.”

Experts say children are at a greater risk than adults because their lungs are larger compared with the rest of their bodies, so they take in more air, faster.

And “most of the products that are used or the byproducts that come out of the methamphetamine, they stay lower to the ground. And who is lower to the ground? The kids,” Rosa said.

Police raids of meth labs show how vulnerable children, even older children, can be.

On June 1, deputies seized one of the Midlands’ largest meth labs ever, in Lexington County, at 225 Transom Court in Gaston.

“We were in the home for two minutes,” Detective John Moore said during a court hearing after the raid. “It left four agents with their throats burning, chest pain, tightness and cold chills.”

Deputies didn’t enter the house again until they were outfitted with oxygen tanks and hazmat suits sealed with duct tape.

A 15-year-old boy lived there with his parents, deputies said.

Authorities found the boy when they arrested his mother, Jacqueline Felder Johnson, at a friend’s house. She had meth and a meth pipe with her.

A judge placed the boy with relatives.

A PROTOCOL

DSS considers the health of children found at meth labs in severe jeopardy, according to a protocol it helped develop with 13 other state agencies and organizations.

The protocol details exactly how children should be removed from the scene and detoxified by emergency workers. It says doctors should examine them within 30 days and again a year later.

But the protocol is voluntary, and it’s not clear how widely used it is across the state. It was finalized in late 2005, nearly five years after meth abuse became an issue in South Carolina.

DSS and other agencies needed time to survey employees before signing off on the four-page document, according to DSS director Kathleen Hayes.

Drafts circulated among 14 agencies for review from late 2003 to mid-2005. The other groups included the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the state Attorney General’s Office and state firefighters, sheriffs and emergency medical organizations.

In the meantime, law enforcement workers raided hundreds more meth labs.

“It wasn’t as if we were ignoring the situation during that time,” Hayes said. DSS’s social workers still were helping law enforcement agents with the children, she said.

One raid, though, in January 2005, shook emergency workers and highlighted the need for immediate action.

An Aiken County house with four children in it caught fire during a raid. Addicts inside were cooking a batch of meth. Houses on either side had to be evacuated.

That “was one of the worst ones we’ve had,” said John Ozaluk, U.S. DEA chief for South Carolina, who was on the scene.

The house was full of a chemical fog, Ozaluk said. Rescue workers stripped down the children, then hosed them off with water in a special portable shower.

Before the shower, the oldest child, a boy about 13, pulled a raw hot dog out of his pocket and started to give it to his two younger sisters, Ozaluk said.

“We stopped him, because the hot dog was probably contaminated,’” Ozaluk said. “He said, ‘Whenever I see food in the house, I get it and give it to my sisters.’”

The 13-year-old and the other children, ages 2, 3 and 11, were exposed to acetone and lantern fuel, both of which can cause eye irritation, rhinitis, nasal congestion, rash, itching, headache, nausea and vomiting, according to court records.

The children had none of those symptoms, but the two youngest suffered from trauma.

In court documents, Jeri McGowan, wife of meth cook Vader McGowan, said the two later had nightmares and were afraid of the dark and of being left alone. And they had to be potty trained a second time.

Before she was sentenced to nearly four years in prison, Jeri McGowan spoke at foster parent meetings about how meth had affected her children.

Foster parents should know that, according to the state protocol, and should be trained to care for children exposed to meth labs.

The protocol also recommends extensive follow-up examinations, including:

nþFollow-up checks 30 days after the incident and 12 months after the incident

nþComprehensive physical exams and lab tests, specifically ones that monitor liver and respiratory function

nþVisits with a mental health professional within 30 days and 12 months after the incident

But the protocol is an informal agreement and therefore not legally binding, said Thomas Leclair, an attorney with the USC Children’s Law Center. Basically, it’s available for agencies to use if they want to.

However, because the protocol is signed by relevant state agency and association heads, it is strongly encouraged.

Leclair said most state agencies, including DSS, state law enforcement agencies and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, endorse and follow the protocol.

But with no centralized tracking system, it’s hard to know whether county offices of those agencies are using it.

“There hasn’t been a real push to go out there and gather data on” it, he said.

NO DATABASE FOR TRACKING

DSS general counsel Virginia Williamson said each child placed in emergency protective custody has a case worker assigned to him or her who makes sure the child receives appropriate medical care.

But overall, department headquarters does not track the number of children taken from meth lab sites, a fact that upsets some child advocates.

Donna Happach is the executive director of Parenting Partners, a nonprofit Midlands-based organization that contracts with DSS to do home-based education for families at risk of child abuse.

She said the problem goes beyond meth, that there is no central database in South Carolina that tracks why children are removed from their homes. The need to establish one is critical, she said.

“If it’s not meth, it will be something else,” she said. “Not to develop a uniform data collection system statewide that can be responsive to trends and drug use — I absolutely believe it will impair our ability long term to develop a quick response to growing drug trends when children are involved.”

DSS officials said that while it might be a good idea to have a more comprehensive database, it is not practical, given the thousands of children the agency monitors for multiple causes.

“Our system does track general reasons for removal, such as physical neglect or physical abuse, but it does not tease out more detailed data,” Williamson said. But, she said, more detail is in a child’s individual records if an authorized person wants to look.

Meanwhile, the S.C. Children’s Advocacy Medical Response System, a division of the USC School of Medicine, is developing its own tool.

It’s working on a confidential medical database that will collect information about child abuse and neglect victims, including meth children.

The database will include information only from children screened at children’s hospitals statewide and child advocacy centers, said Rosa, the system’s director. Children assessed at community hospitals or private medical offices would not be included.

The system will use the data to estimate how many child-abuse victims need medical services, what kind of abuse is happening and what kind of medical services are needed. In-depth tracking of meth children would take more money and resources, she said.

“But it’s a starting point, and starting is the most important thing,” Rosa said.

‘LIKE POWDERED SUGAR’

Advocates worry about children because meth is so often made in homes and because women’s attraction to meth raises the ante for children.

“It’s a woman’s drug just as much as a man’s drug. æ.æ.æ. Others are not,” said Monica Miller, who works for the Clemson Institute for Economic and Community Development and is putting together a grass-roots committee to combat meth in the Midlands.

Since most children are raised by women, children have a greater chance of being exposed to meth than any other drug, according to the state Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services.

Law enforcement photos of meth labs show cooks, possibly because of drug-induced paranoia, like to store chemicals in common household containers, such as milk jugs, measuring cups and bottles — thinking law enforcement won’t find them there.

That can create a minefield for children.

The jugs labeled “Kool-Aid” in Aiken County to distinguish them from jugs of dangerous chemicals are a perfect example of parents not thinking that it would take only one small mistake to create a disaster for a child, said Beth Anne Young, an Aiken County prosecutor who handled the case.

“It says a lot about the awful nature of meth,” Young said. It “makes people choose the drug over their children.”

In Spartanburg County, three children tested positive for meth after sheriff’s deputies raided a house in Greer.

The father, Rodney Harold Henry, was making meth about 10 feet from a child’s bedroom.

Once he finished a batch, officials said, Henry would place the powdered meth on a plate under heat lamps on a kitchen counter.

Authorities believe the children might have tried the drug, not knowing what it was.

“It looked like powdered sugar,” said Lt. Ashley Harris with the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office. “Walk by and stick your finger in it.

“That’s what kids do.”

Reach Beam at (803) 771-8405. Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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