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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Amber struggles to shake drug's hold
For one North Idaho woman, the choice is clear: Lose your children if you keep using meth. Try as she might to quit, the drug still beckons.

Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review
Amber Phipps smokes methamphetamine in the morning hours at a friend's house in Coeur d'Alene. The high will last up to 12 hours.

Angie Gaddy - The Spokesman-Review

Amber Phipps rushed from her first-story apartment to the brown '79 Camaro in the parking lot.

Her 4-month-old and 23-month-old daughters bounced in her arms. If she could get out of her apartment without the cops seeing, she would be fine.

Things were unraveling.

Four days earlier, the cops told her they were searching for her boyfriend. If he was staying with her, she'd be arrested, too.

They probably knew about her dealing methamphetamine. Maybe they knew she'd learned to cook dope, and that she had danced nude for money.

On that warm afternoon in May 1999, police banged on her door looking for her boyfriend. He hid. She lied.

The rest was a blur.

Police pulled the Camaro over as Phipps headed to her mother's home. They found drugs -- a snort tube, a film canister with white powdery residue and a folded piece of aluminum foil.

Police handcuffed her. Social workers took her crying daughters.

Later, when police searched her apartment, they found a metal pipe next to the bed and her 39-year-old boyfriend hiding in a cabinet with drugs on him.

She was charged with child injury and drug possession.

Social workers told her the kids would stay in the system for a year. She had to shape up or she'd lose them for good. Get a job. Stop using. Find new friends.

Phipps blamed them. It was the state's fault. She never started using until social workers took her girls away.

As her two daughters moved through three foster homes before landing with her mother, Phipps kept doing drugs.

She remembers May 25, 1999. Not so much because she lost her kids that day, but because she had to leave the Camaro by the side of the road.

"It's crazy," Phipps says. "The things I do to have a normal life."

"I don't care"

Amber Renee Phipps. Also known as case numbers 99-04243, 99-05743, 99-10040. Also known to the cops as trouble.

At 19, Phipps barely passes for driving age.

She's smoked cocaine, dropped acid, smoked pot. When she shot up heroin with a boyfriend, it just made her sick.

Meth was different.

"I don't care when I do meth. I hate to say that," Phipps says. "But I know deep in my heart I'm not bad."

With crank, she stayed high longer. She partied all night. She had money from selling drugs and dated Martin Schorzman, the man police viewed as one of the most violent meth makers around. She got respect.

At 5-foot-3 and 94 pounds, her body is thin and pale and stretched from the birth of her two daughters.

And although her teeth are slowly starting to fall out and she has no job or home, it doesn't matter.

"Losing one of their kids is not a threat to meth users," says Michelle Britton, regional director of Idaho Health and Welfare, whose office oversees 240 children in foster care. Half are there because of meth.

Meth addiction makes parents lazy and careless. It makes them violent and ruins their health and their children's.

"I look for logical explanations," says Idaho State Police Capt. Wayne Longo, whose officers busted 92 illegal meth labs last year in North Idaho. "I can't find one."

An early start

In eighth grade, Phipps got caught stealing $15 worth of socks and CDs from ShopKo. The judge sentenced her to 10 days in juvie. By the time she got there, she was five months pregnant.

The baby's father was a 17-year-old thief and druggie.

In three years, her boyfriend had racked up 18 warrants for his arrest, ranging from grand theft to possession of meth. His father broke down the door to a woman's home and shot her to death in a jealous rage.

The day Phipps went into labor, her boyfriend had to be dragged to the hospital by his mother.

While family members videotaped Phipps giving birth to his daughter, Alexus, he slept on the waiting room couch.

A little more than a year later, Phipps gave birth to her second daughter, Keiara. The father, a different man, left for the U.S. Marines only four days after the baby was born.

Phipps never completed ninth grade and started running away at 15.

When social workers took her daughters in 1999, they classified Phipps' case as "high risk." Drug counselors called her an addict.

That year, judges warned her and her three brothers, who have popped in and out of jail so much their mother can't keep their court dates straight, to stay out of trouble.

"Drugs do ruin people," says Phipps' mother, Cindy Roberts. "They've ruined my family."

Family ties

When Cindy Roberts drank, bad things happened.

She hopped on the back of Harleys after dancing too close to men at honky-tonks. She partied while her babies slept and chose the wrong men to father her children.

"I tried every drug there was," Roberts says. "I was a drunk that liked to party."

By age 20, she was pregnant with her first son. Two years later, a second one followed.

With welfare money, she traveled to the California desert and through Midwest cornfields before landing in the hills of Tennessee, eight months pregnant and knocking on her mother's door.

On March 17, 1981, Roberts gave birth to a dark-haired, brown-eyed girl. She called her Amber Renee.

Amber spent time with her father just once. When she was 10, she stayed a summer with him in a Missouri farm town amid cornfields and silos.

The wind whipped through her hair as she held tight on the back of his motorcycle -- just as her mom used to do.

The last she heard, he's in prison for meth.


On a blustery February morning Phipps wakes up at 8, inhaling two hits of meth before she can even get out of bed.

It's not her bed. She'd crawled through a friend's window after a night of partying.

Since last May, when her children were taken away, she's been bouncing from hotel rooms to homes and apartments looking for companionship.

Today she will see her girls.

It's been nine months since they slept in the same house with her. Her criminal charges have been dropped or reduced. Three months remain before she will tell a judge why she -- and not the state-- should have her children.

The children are with Phipps' mother, who has no idea where her daughter lives.

"I like to keep it that way," Phipps says as she applies heavy, black eyeliner. "I'm glad my kids are where they are. I need to be a kid for a while."

She always carries makeup, a toothbrush and baby wipes in her purse.

Later she calls her mother. Her grandmother answers the phone. "Hi, Grandma," she chirps. "Can I bring my laundry over? Can I have some gas money?"

She hangs up, grabs her laundry and heads to her Jeep. She has no license and the Jeep reeks with the cat-urine odor of a meth lab.

Inside she carries a filing folder of lawsuits, letters and a book on Idaho's laws -- reading material to help get her kids back.

When Phipps walks into her mother's house, the girls squeal. Alexus, her 2-year-old, has been waiting at the window all morning. Keiara, 13 months, crawls through the living room.

"Why haven't you been here to see these kids? Why are you hiding?" Roberts yells.

"Because it's not over yet," Phipps screams as she holds Alexus in her arms.

"What's not over yet?" Roberts asks.

Phipps doesn't answer. Twenty minutes later, she starts to leave. The girls start to cry.

"I want to go," Alexus pleads.

"You can't. The bad people won't let you," Phipps tells her.

"Don't tell them they're bad," Roberts says.

"Yes, they are. They're pieces of crap," Phipps yells as she heads out the door.

Back at her friend's house, she stands in the kitchen doorway and cries.

"My heart is torn out," she says. "I know if I don't do drugs today, I'll lay in that bed for days. I haven't been there because I can't. How can I?"

She sits on the couch and unfolds a piece of aluminum foil. In it is one-fourth of a gram of crank.

She grabs a drinking straw, a few inches of aluminum foil and a lighter. She sprinkles off-white crystals onto the foil, puts the drinking straw in her mouth and the lighter under the foil.

She sucks in the smoke and grimaces. Her eyes start to dilate, her heart races.

"I hate the taste of it," she says. "I don't do it every day. I do it when I'm sad, depressed or can't deal with life. It's not a have-to thing. It's a cope-with thing."

Roberts believes her daughter really wanted her kids back in the beginning. Now, she's not so sure.

"She's tasted freedom," Roberts says. "She knows what it feels like."

The tweakers

Phipps calls it "the ranch." It's just north of Garwood in the backwoods of North Idaho, and it's where the cooks and tweakers go.

A pot-holed dirt road meanders through ponderosa pines until it reaches a gate. Behind the gate lies a construction zone of uprooted stumps, baby strollers, trash and a pit of muddy rainwater -- a hole for a swimming pool the owner dug herself during a meth high.

Tweakers say the woman got a $250,000 settlement from her husband's drug-induced suicide. She blew it on land, a blue manufactured home, a hot tub and bail for men who skipped town.

She blew it on drugs.

"This is where the escapers go. It's quiet," Phipps says.

On a March morning, a thin man with a scabby face smokes outside. He paces back and forth, agitated.

"That's what we call a spun monkey," Phipps says.

In the kitchen, where dishes are piled in the sink, amateur chemists cook their drug.

The ranch is good for cooking, Phipps says. The horses' smell masks the witch's brew of harsh chemicals used to make meth.

In one bedroom, an aquarium for a little boy's pets sits on a dresser across from bunk beds. Across the hall, dolls sit on the shelves in a little girl's bedroom.

The ranch owner's children aren't home. Phipps hasn't been back to see her own girls in a few weeks.


Days later, Phipps sits in the lobby of a Coeur d'Alene drug treatment center. "Welcome to Port of Hope," the sign in the lobby reads. "Believe in yourself."

Phipps says she's going to check herself into treatment and get her girls back. Social workers have told her for months she needs counseling. They will help pay for it. Phipps needs to prove she's serious if she wants to get her girls back.

It's been 10 months since her arrest and the children were taken away. She's got two more months until the judge looks at her case.

So far, there's not much progress. She has no home. She's stood up counselors, and the only urinalysis test she took, she failed.

Four months ago, police again arrested her during a traffic stop. They found stolen checks in the pickup; her boyfriend fled on foot, armed. Later, a plea bargain brought her charges down to disturbing the peace.

Once, she woke up in a camper to the smell of a leaking anhydrous ammonia tank. She and a tweaker got high before loading the tank into the back of his pickup and throwing it off the top of Canfield Mountain.

Today, she sits in the lobby reading the 81-question assessment. She's wearing the same khakis and denim shirt she wore yesterday. She slept in a friend's barn last night.

"They're all retarded questions," she says. "I'm going to lie my teeth out and see what they do."

Later, a counselor orders almost a month of inpatient treatment. Phipps says no. She's moving into her mother's home, where her girls live.

"I'm not going to spend 30 days inside. These are the last 30 days with my kids."

New relationship

Phipps starts going to Jim Cason's house in March. He drives a beat-up Chevy Nova with a bass so loud it shakes neighbors' windows when he drives by.

He has a Silver Valley construction job. He buys her food and lets her stay the weekend at his small, two-bedroom home in Osburn. He says he'll buy the girls a swing set.

Cason doesn't do meth. He's good for her, Phipps says. He takes her to her court dates and sits next to her in the back of the room.

When she recognizes every prosecutor and public defender in the courtroom, he says quietly, "Maybe that tells you you've been here too much."

Early on, she thinks she's pregnant. The test came back negative. "He was disappointed," Phipps says.

But Cason wonders about the letters still coming from Schorzman, who's in jail on attempted first-degree murder charges after allegedly trying to strangle a jailer.

Schorzman says he loves her and he knows she turned him in to the cops.

Phipps writes back: "I miss you. I love you. I cant sleep at knight without dreaming of you and I together."

Cason tells her he doesn't like her druggie friends.

On her 19th birthday, Phipps goes to a friend's house. Inside, the tweakers light up.

Phipps looks at them. They're aging and complacent. "How old are you, and what do have to your name?" she yells.

She walks out the front door and slams it. She stops. "What am I doing?" She walks back in.

"Hi, guys," Phipps says, smiling.

For her birthday, she gets half a gram of meth.

On the run

At her mother's house, for a few days, Phipps has to be out of bed at 8:30 a.m. The girls are up by 6.

Phipps leaves her bed unmade, leaves dirty diapers and her dirty laundry on the floor.

"She knows I can't stand a dirty house," Roberts says. "I love her, but I cannot stand her. She has ruined my life."

Phipps' dog, Dipstick, has to go, Roberts tells her. Phipps keeps the dog in her Jeep parked in the driveway. It chews up her letters and defecates all over the seats.

On April 1, Phipps calls Cason. "Please," she pleads, "I'm dying here. Come pick me up."

They get approval from social workers to take the girls for a day outing, but Phipps keeps them overnight.

Roberts finally reaches her at 8:30 the next morning. If the girls aren't back in an hour, she's calling the cops.

Phipps returns the girls and then she leaves. On her way out, she takes a piece of paper with her friends' phone numbers. Roberts has no way to reach her.

Her grandmother, Jean Thomas, watches it all.

"I don't know if it's too late for her already," Thomas says. "Sometimes I love her so much. Other times I want to kill her myself."

Phipps says she won't go back. "My mom thinks she's always right. Now I'm going about my life."

She moves into the two-bedroom home in Osburn with Cason and his roommate in April.

Cason stops coming home on time. He hangs out at bars and in shops working on his motorcycle.

"Where have you been?" she asks him late one Friday night.

"Out," he says quietly.

She and Cason fight. He doesn't like the fact that she once danced naked at Stateline Showgirls for money, or how she's slept with more men than she can remember.

Still, Phipps wants to stay with Cason. She needs to show social workers that she has a stable home for her girls.

"I will make this relationship work at least until I get my girls back," Phipps says.

After that, she and Cason will be roommates -- just friends.

In May, they move into a blue house with white trim in downtown Osburn.

It has been a month since she last used meth, she says. But if she takes a urinalysis today, she'll fail. She started smoking pot instead.

After one fight, Cason drives her to Coeur d'Alene. Phipps visits a friend, who Dumpster-dives for food and clothes, and injects meth every morning. Phipps stays with a man the tweakers say is a known cook.

"I was tempted," Phipps says, but claims she never used.

She says she wants to start taking classes to become a paralegal. Maybe one day she will be an attorney.

For now, she's digging a sandbox for her girls in Cason's back yard.

New beginnings

On May 24, prosecutors and social workers agree to let Phipps have custody of her girls every other weekend for the next three months. The rest of the time the girls will stay with her mother.

In August, a Kootenai County judge will review the case and make a final decision.

Roberts is pleased, but cautious.

"I want these girls safe," she says. "I want these girls back with their mother. I do. But they are not being put in that situation again. These girls are not going to die because of drugs."

Phipps says she will take them camping with friends in Kingston over the weekend. It's Memorial Day.

"It's a party weekend. I should be able to smoke a bowl," she tells her mother an hour after the court hearing.

"No you can't. Your kids are going to be with you," Roberts yells.

"Oh, I forgot," Phipps says.

Phipps eats lunch at Roberts' house before announcing she has to leave to interview for a waitress job and then hang out with friends in Osburn.

Alexus starts to cry.

Phipps walks out. Alexus stands at the screen door screaming, "My mommy. My mommy. My mommy."

Don't worry, Phipps says, "I'll be back."

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