A drug's innocent victims
Part three: Meth -- A deadly epidemic: Meth addicts often expose children to drug's brutal risks
|Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review|
Shawna Rigby cuddles up to her mother during their weekly supervised meeting at the Newport Child Protective Services office. Lauri Rigby lost custody of Shawna after her arrest.
- Staff writer
The stench repelled the police, sending them back out the door of the single-wide trailer.
Feces were piled in the toilet and the tub. Diapers, trash and festering food filled the shower. More food rotted in the sink.
Snow drifted in through a broken window and dripped from a 15-inch hole in the roof half-covered by torn plastic. An extension cord snaked under the door to power a small wall heater. The trailer had no plumbing.
Inside, alone, lived an 11-year-old girl.
Washington state's mobile SWAT team descended on the Diamond Lake property in January to bust an accused methamphetamine manufacturer, Ron Rigby of Newport. The team got the "cooker" and his drug-making kit that included a gallon of industrial-grade rust remover.
And then they found the squalor in the adjoining trailer.
"I wouldn't put a dog in that place," said a child welfare official who handled the case.
As law enforcement combats the region's growing meth epidemic, social workers are losing the struggle to help addicts and their children.
Meth is the drug of the moment in the Inland Northwest, more popular than cocaine and heroin. It's a drug that splits families like an ax.
Children were found living in about half the 36 meth labs busted in Spokane County last year; statewide, 34 percent of 789 meth labs were home to children.
Idaho social workers estimate children were found in at least a third of 170 labs busted on the Panhandle since 1998.
Kids pulled from meth homes are often sick, mentally and physically. They lose their belongings and security and fill foster homes. Many are likely to face lifelong health problems.
Meanwhile, their parents stay in jail or drop out of treatment. Some are unable even to get into treatment. Few will ever regain custody of their children.
Adoptions of kids in foster homes more than doubled from 1996 to 1999. Caseloads of state Child Protective Services workers climb. Addicts face months-long waiting lists for publicly funded treatment.
With each case, the burden on social service agencies swells, along with the bill to taxpayers.
The cost of meth for the 11-year-old girl's mother, Lauri R. Rigby of Newport, was high. She dropped out of a paralegal training program last summer, two credits shy of graduation, as meth consumed her.
Today, her daughter, Shawna, is in a Newport foster home under state custody. Rigby was charged with reckless child endangerment. Last month, her sentence was deferred as long as she stays clean, gets treatment and complies with CPS orders.
Ron Rigby, her husband, awaits trial on a drug distribution charge.
Rigby admits she and her husband injected meth - up to an 8-ball (3.75 grams) a weekend. She admits smoking a lot of pot. She admits the girl lived in the trailer, next to the shack where Rigby and her husband lived.
"My kids didn't seem to mind that we didn't have a lot of money," she said as she picked at meth-caused sores on her forearms while waiting for treatment at a Spokane detox center. "We had a lot of love."
The trailer has since been declared unfit for humans and condemned by the county health district.
Parents `very cruel on meth'
Last year, in a raid on a Pend Oreille County home meth lab, police found a child's half-eaten ice cream cone next to powder-encrusted cooking utensils. The home's front room was soaked with toxic chemical residue 25 times the safe limit.
Children seized from such homes are given showers to rinse off chemical residue. Their clothes, toys and other possessions - even homework - are destroyed to protect the children, social workers and foster parents.
They then enter "the system" - the taxpayer-financed network of state CPS workers, foster homes, counselors and adoption workers.
Juvenile Court staff estimate that nearly half of the 1,100 Spokane County children in temporary state custody are there because of parents involved in meth. Foster home placements are on a record pace, with meth cited as a likely cause.
In North Idaho child welfare offices, meth was a nonexistent problem before early 1998. Today, almost half of the 240 children in foster care are there because of meth.
The burden can be even greater outside the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene corridor. In the St. Maries Department of Health and Welfare office, an estimated 90 percent of kids in foster homes have meth-addicted parents.
And the numbers may be underreported. Social workers believe police don't always call CPS when children are found in meth labs, and not all meth labs are busted.
Meth kids are half of Terri Jones' caseload. A CPS social worker for 15 years in Spokane, Jones has witnessed PCP, crack and heroin epidemics. She can't remember one as harsh on kids as meth.
Her files detail the drug's toll on kids born to meth-using mothers or those living around its manufacture: children with respiratory infections, unable to gain weight, absorb nutrients or have normal bowel movements.
And the kids often were punching bags for strung-out parents. Doctors recently found 2- and 4-month-old children with spiral fractures of thigh bones - twisted until they snapped. Molestation is also common, say social workers and physicians.
"What turns my stomach is when parents are cruel to their children," said Jones. "And parents can be very cruel on meth."
An infant was found crawling among spilled acids in a meth lab bust near Newport earlier this year. The boy had second-degree burns on his knees and palms.
But what may take a more lasting toll on the children is the severe, chronic neglect.
Social workers say it's not uncommon to find 8-year-olds who've never been to school. Social workers often find older, "parentified" children who bathe, feed and care for younger siblings.
CPS worker Nicole La Belle recalls taking three siblings - 11, 2 and 1 - from a suspected meth lab in Spokane last year. The younger kids were mute.
As the trio was bundled off to a foster home, they blinked at the sun. "It looked like they'd never been outside," said La Belle.
Such neglect can cause irreversible psychological damage, putting a lifelong burden on public mental health system counselors.
"Research is letting us know that severe neglect is worse than severe abuse," said Kent Hoffman, a Spokane pediatric therapist who is conducting brain research on children. Neglected children are more likely to become withdrawn adults with mental disorders and to become perpetrators of abuse or neglect themselves, he said.
Research on the effects of exposure to meth in the womb or to meth-making chemicals is spottier.
"Are we hard-wiring their brains to need meth later? We don't know," said Dr. Deb Harper, a Group Health pediatrician who often sees children of meth addicts. "What are meth kids going to be like when they grow up? I don't know. Ask me in five years, when the research is ready."
`Can't say no'
Once in "the system," meth kids rarely leave.
Diana Cote-Smith, the state's northeast Washington supervisor for foster homes, finds that parents often fail court-ordered treatment plans and rarely regain custody of their kids. Based on her observations overseeing social work staff, she estimates that nine out of 10 meth-addicted parents lost permanent custody.
Idaho child welfare workers find similar frustration in reuniting families.
Parents just can't kick the meth habit.
"We've always worked under this guideline that parents want their kids back, and we help them," said Jerry John, a child welfare supervisor in Coeur d'Alene. "But the drug is so powerful, they're just not able to resolve the issues. They can't say no to the drug."
As the parents fail, foster home placements and adoptions soar.
Cote-Smith said an acute shortage of foster homes - particularly in rural areas outside of Spokane - forces social workers to place more kids with relatives of meth-involved parents. Such placements increased sixfold in the past two years.
"So far, we've been able to come up with solutions, but those require placing too many kids in one (foster) home," she said.
The children's mental and physical problems are so severe that foster parents routinely get bonus stipends worth hundreds of dollars a month for special care.
Though there's no breakdown for meth-related cases, adoptions out of foster homes in Washington and Idaho have soared.
But Pam Caird, a Department of Social and Health Service adoption manager in Olympia, said meth is likely a factor in the number of adoptions more than doubling since 1996, to 174 in 1999.
`Great wall of denial'
Social workers talk about meth addicts' "great wall of denial" - no matter how bad the conditions, parents insist the kids are OK.
"These parents, their brains are fried on meth," said Jones, the Spokane CPS worker. "If they think about their kids at all, they're in denial mode - `it's not that bad,' or `it's only for today.' "
Most of these parents also have addictions to alcohol or marijuana to cushion the crash from meth highs.
Meth itself is arguably the most addictive drug.
A Washington state study found meth addicts are the least likely to complete treatment: 58 percent of patients on meth graduate, compared with 71 percent of heroin addicts. Many repeatedly return to treatment, unable to kick their habit.
Gina, a meth-addicted mother of two, had to wait 46 days to get into a Spokane inpatient treatment center after being ordered to by child welfare authorities.
While on the waiting list, she knew a positive urine test could mean never seeing her kids again. She used, failed - and then skipped subsequent tests. "I don't know how to explain it," said Gina. "I had to have it to function." She relapsed a week after leaving treatment.
Gina's involvement with CPS bumped her up the waiting list for treatment; a 60- to 90-day wait is more common.
Ken Stark, head of Washington's Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse, said his office has money to help just one of five who seek treatment. The rest, he said, go untreated.
In 1995, Washington drug treatment clinics saw just 116 meth addicts from Spokane. By 1999, that number had more than quadrupled, to 503. The state pays $62 each day an addict is in an inpatient treatment center.
In Kootenai County, admissions for drug treatment through April are on pace to double last year's tally. Nearly half of the 426 people receiving drug treatment this year listed meth as their drug of choice.
Once in clinics, detoxing meth addicts are edgy, angry and prone to run.
"On speed, the effect is heightened awareness," said Mark Brownlow, administrator for Spokane Addiction Recovery Centers. "They don't need to sleep, they don't need to eat. They say, `What's so wrong with this drug?' "
His counselors now guard against violence after fights erupted during treatment sessions, he said. "We never had fistfights in groups when we were just dealing with alcohol."
Because of the addicts' propensity to bolt, Brownlow's clinic is shrinking counselor caseloads from 12 to six.
Another `dirty' drug test
Lauri Rigby arrived 20 minutes late at the Newport CPS office for a weekly visit with her daughter late last month. She is on a waiting list for inpatient treatment and hoped to bring the girl home for a weekend in June before she checks into a clinic.
Shawna Rigby, now 12, leapt from a couch as her mother arrived carrying two dolls salvaged after the bust.
The sixth-grader hugged her mom. She had caught a cold from her foster family and had had trouble in school. She said she wanted to return to life in the trailer and blamed her family's problems on the police.
"I hate the cops, and the cops hate our family. This is a horrible town."
But talk of a family weekend died as a social worker appeared with Lauri Rigby's latest drug test results. Her urine again showed evidence of methamphetamine and marijuana.
Five of six drug tests since March 27 have come up positive - "dirty" - for both drugs. Rigby's only clean test was during a five-day stay in detox in early May. The drug is detectable up to 48 hours after use.
The test is false, Rigby said. "It's another setback unless I can prove it wrong," she told her daughter. "I know I didn't do it."
Shawna agreed. "I know it isn't bad. I know you're trying, Mom."
Jonathan Martin can be reached at (509) 459-5484 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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