When Cindy Gunter and her husband, Sam, decided to become foster parents, the first children they took in were three siblings, 4, 5 and 6-years-old.
“I told my husband and daughter, who was in high school at the time, OK, I’ll get up when the first one cries in the night, you get up with the second and so on. I assumed they would be like any young child who had been suddenly taken away from the only home they’d known and put with strangers — scared,” she said. “I didn’t get up once. They never cried.
“Twelve years we were foster parents and 26 kids later, none of them cried.”
Children are often overlooked in the debate about how best to tackle the methamphetamine problem, despite multiple studies showing the negative effects of living in a home where drugs are being used, sold or made. According to the Department of Justice, children who grow up around meth labs experience stress and trauma that can significantly impair both their physical and mental health and often exhibit low self-esteem, a sense of shame and poor social skills.
“Many children who live in drug homes exhibit an attachment disorder, which occurs when parents fail to respond to an infant’s basic needs or do so unpredictably,” a DOJ study on children and meth lab reports. “These children typically do not cry or show emotion when separated from their parents. Symptoms of attachment disorder include the inability to trust, form relationships and adapt.”
“In my experience, kids don’t even start to reveal what they’ve seen or experienced until they feel safe,” Gunter said. “When they have a safe environment to live in and appropriate counseling, they start to reveal things that no child should have to endure. The stories I’ve heard from children who are just babies, they’ll make you cry.”
‘It’ll break your heart’
When the Sedalia Police Department STING Unit puts a suspected drug house under surveillance, officers are well-aware if there are children living there. During the briefing before serving a search warrant, detectives will discuss the number and approximate ages of children and assign an officer to take care of the kids and minimize any trauma a surprise search warrant may inflict.
SPD Officer Neva Overstreet has become a de facto caregiver during these operations.
“When we’re serving a search warrant, the first responsibility is securing the house and the suspects in question,” Overstreet said. “The next step is the kids, so my job is to round them all up and make sure they’re OK.”
Depending on their age, most children are aware drugs are being sold in their home, Overstreet said.
“I’d say 80 percent of the time it’s done right out in the open, kids are seeing it,” she added. “Sometimes the kids are totally unfazed by a search warrant. I’ve had 10-year-olds who think mom and dad being taken to jail is part of life. Often they’re the ones to give me information about ‘yeah, we go to grandma’s house when mom’s in jail.’ It’ll break your heart.”
Now working as a Prevention Specialist at Pathways Community Behavioral Healthcare Inc., Gunter said she’s taken in some foster children who, at the start, seem almost hopeless. Older children especially are more susceptible to turning to a life of drug use if they’ve been raised in a drug home.
“We had a 13-year-old girl we took in,” she said. “She had been in detention centers, run away from home, was disrespectful at school. When she came to live with us we told her, ‘here are the rules’ and after a while she started to really flourish.”
The girl no longer had discipline problems at school, was moved from the special learning program to mainstream classes, joined the track team and improved her grades.
“I was worried at the start, I wouldn’t have thought being 13 years old she could change so much,” Gunter said. “We found out not only was she in a drug home but also her stepfather had physically and sexually abused her so for her to really turn her life around, that’s a good feeling.”
According to Gunter the girl was eventually sent to live with out-of-state relatives and these days is “doing quite well, living her life.”
“There is hope for these children,” she said. “If we can get them out of that environment, there’s hope.”
It’s getting children out of the environment, away from drug-addicted parents that can be the hard part. Overstreet said she’s been in homes where parents don’t realize the emotional abuse or neglect they’re inflicting on their children.
“There was a case where upon entry, the officers found the suspect and his significant other and (their) baby all in the same room,” she said. “On the end table there was an open baggy with marijuana in it and a pipe, right within reach of the little one.
“(Users) have no clue the impact it has on kids to live in those types of houses.”
One of the worst homes Overstreet said she’s seen was a meth house. Six children slept on mattresses squeezed into a small room, surrounded by clothing, old food and bugs everywhere.
“All these kids are in a room smaller than some bathrooms, everything was a mess,” she said. “It was a drug house, where meth was being sold and used probably on a daily basis. It’s situations like those that make me wish I could take the children home with me.”
Overstreet said in that situation Missouri Department of Social Services is immediately called to investigate and the children are sent to foster families.
“(Children) don’t have a voice when it comes to choosing where to live,” she said. “Someone has to step up and be the voice for them.”
Educating the public
“When the police department comes in (on a search warrant) there’s a process for what to do with the adults,” Gunter said. “But there’s not a great process for what to do with the children, who are of course innocent victims in all of this. The Drug Endangered Children program brings everyone to the table to figure out, ‘OK, what do we do in these situations and what’s best for the child?’ ”
Communication across all lines — from law enforcement agencies to social services to school counselors — is important to keeping children physically and emotionally healthy, she added.
“One group may know one thing, another group another thing and no one is talking to each other,” Gunter said. “Our first priority needs to be the children. Most of the time when, the abuse and neglect you can see is only the tip of the iceberg with these kids. There’s so much under the surface that needs to be helped. It’s disheartening because those parents are choosing the drug over their own children.”
The National DEC program focuses on forming community-based partnerships; here in Pettis County the Mothers Against Methamphetamine group is working with Gunter and other local agencies to get a DEC chapter off the ground.
“This is still a new thing for us, we’re hoping to start getting training available sometime next month,” Gunter said. “I used to be a teacher and we would always have a day where we learned ‘here are the 10 signs of abused and if a child shows three of the 10, they’re likely being abused.’ Some kids showed all 10. We need that sort of education available to everyone.”
Prevention and awareness
Early and often is the way to talk about drugs to children, said Sedalia Police Chief John DeGonia.
“Education is key,” he said. “They say we’ve got to get kids when they’re 9 or 10-years-old. No, we need to get them when they’re 6-years-old. DARE is a wonderful thing, I taught DARE for a lot of years, but for some of these kids, by the time they get to fifth grade (when DARE is taught) they’ve already been exposed to it. They can tell you more about dope than I can.”
Current SPD DARE Officer Michael Elwood said typically the class that has the most impact on his students is the lesson on meth when the “Faces of Meth” video is shown. Created by a deputy in the Multnomah County (Ore.) Sheriff’s Department, the short video shows mugshots from those who have been booked into the Multnomah County Detention Center.
“The video is pretty well known, it shows a progression of the same people who have been arrested who are on meth,” Elwood said. “Each mugshot you can see the physical differences, the teeth falling out, the scabs and scars forming on their faces, the gauntness. (The students) say they look like zombies at the end; they’re right.”
Showing the video may be effective for children who have never seen meth-use up close, but some students live with it daily, Elwood acknowledged.
“I know there are kids (in DARE) who are in those situations, living in houses where drugs are being taken or sold,” Elwood said. “Kids suffer the worst, there’s no doubt. They’re ignored and left alone.”
Most damaging, he added, was the effect of seeing drug use from a young age.
“If the meth lifestyle is all you see at 2, 4, 8, 12, 15-years-old and then someone hands you a meth pipe at 16, why would you say ‘no’ to that?” he said. “I tell my DARE students all the time — drugs will lead you to being alone, either in jail, in the hospital or dead if you let the addiction control you. We need to do everything we possibly can to make sure the kids who are most at risk don’t become users themselves.”
Child Abuse Hotline
The Children’s Division Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline Unit accepts confidential reports of suspected child abuse, neglect or exploitation. Reports are received through a telephone line which is answered seven days a week, 24 hours a day. The toll-free number is 1-800-392-3738.
Children and Neglect
One estimate indicates substance abuse causes or contributes to seven out of 10 cases of child abuse and neglect, which is the leading cause of trauma-related death for children under the age of 5.
— Source: National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.