Meth Labs & Young Children
Meth Labs & Young Children

Newsfeed display by CaRP Until recently, clandestine methamphetamine production was viewed as a victimless crime. Law enforcement and child protective services personnel typically failed to treat as victims the children found living at or visiting illegal methamphetamine laboratory sites. They rarely interviewed these children as potential witnesses, evaluated them for physical or psychological damage, or ensured that they were placed in proper and safe environments.

Now, as more and more children are found living at home-based labs, law enforcement, medical, and social services professionals are showing growing awareness of the enormous physical, developmental, emotional, and psychosocial damage these children may incur.

Children who live at or visit these sites or are present during drug production face acute health and safety risks, including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and medical neglect. The manufacture of methamphetamine may involve hazards such as fires and explosions. The age-related behaviors of young children such as frequent hand-to-mouth contact and physical contact with their environment increase the likelihood that they will inhale, absorb, or ingest toxic chemicals, drugs, or contaminated food. Their physiological characteristics for example higher metabolic and respiratory rates and a developing central nervous system, leave them particularly vulnerable to the effects of toxic chemical exposures. Exposure to drugs and alcohol before birth places infants at increased risk for neurological abnormalities and respiratory problems, which may be compounded by ongoing environmental exposures.

Personnel involved in laboratory seizures should include or have ready access to qualified professionals who can respond to the immediate and potential health needs of the children present at these sites. Actions should include taking children into protective custody, arranging for toxicologic urinalysis for methamphetamine and other drugs, conducting comprehensive medical and mental health assessments, and ensuring short- and long-term care and follow-up with a pediatrician.

Sites that produce methamphetamine may be called laboratories, but they bear little resemblance to legitimate pharmacologic laboratories. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) defines a clandestine laboratory as “an illicit operation consisting of a sufficient combination of apparatus and chemicals that either has been or could be used in the manufacture or synthesis of controlled substances.” In a methamphetamine laboratory, the “cook” often handles ignitable, corrosive, reactive, and toxic chemicals in the presence of an open flame or heat source. Some of these substances are extremely harmful or lethal when inhaled or touched; others react violently when they are heated, immersed in water, exposed to air, or combined. Although clandestine labs use a number of manufacturing methods, all produce volatile chemicals and toxic vapors that present significant health and safety hazards to the meth cook, children, and others who enter the site, including law enforcement personnel and other members of the response team.

People in the surrounding community also may be at risk. The long-term effects of exposure to some of these substances have not been established. However, many of these chemicals are known to damage vital body organs or to cause cancer and other adverse health conditions.

Illegal meth laboratories can be set up wherever activities may be hidden from view, often in locations that are especially dangerous to children, such as sleeping areas, eating areas where food is also stored and prepared, and garages. These makeshift labs and their dangerous components for instance, chemical containers and electrical wiring have been discovered in vehicles of all types, hotel and motel rooms, storage lockers and units, mobile homes and surrounding areas, apartments, ranches, houses, campgrounds, rural and urban rental properties with absentee landlords, abandoned dumps, restrooms, houseboats, and other locations. Meth can be produced in as few as 6 to 8 hours using apparatus and cookware that can be dismantled rapidly and stored or relocated to avoid detection.

Meth production and trafficking were originally concentrated in the West and Southwest, particularly in California, Arizona, Utah, and Texas. Suppliers were outlaw motorcycle gangs and independent trafficking groups. Although California produces 85 percent of the Nation’s methamphetamine, the expansion of Mexico-based meth traffickers and independent U.S.-based laboratories has increased meth availability and abuse in the Pacific Northwest, Midwest, portions of the Southeast including Georgia, Tennessee, and the surrounding states, and, more recently, the Mid-Atlantic states and New England. Increasingly, local entrepreneurs are producing smaller amounts of meth in less complex laboratories using homemade or Internet recipes of dubious origin.

A child living at a clandestine methamphetamine laboratory is exposed to immediate dangers and to the ongoing effects of chemical contamination. In addition, the child may be subjected to fires and explosions, abuse and neglect, a hazardous lifestyle as well as the presence of firearms, social problems, and other risks.

The chemicals used to cook meth and the toxic compounds and byproducts resulting from its manufacture produce toxic fumes, vapors, and spills. A child living at a meth lab may inhale or swallow toxic substances or inhale the secondhand smoke of adults who are using meth; receive an injection or an accidental skin prick from discarded needles or other drug paraphernalia; absorb methamphetamine and other toxic substances through the skin following contact with contaminated surfaces, clothing, or food; or become ill after directly ingesting chemicals or an intermediate product. Exposure to low levels of some meth ingredients may produce headache, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue; exposure to high levels can produce shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain, dizziness, lack of coordination, eye and tissue irritation, chemical burns to the skin, eyes, mouth, and nose, and even death.

Corrosive substances may cause injury through inhalation or contact with the skin. Solvents can irritate the skin, mucous membranes, and respiratory tract and affect the central nervous system. Chronic exposure to the chemicals typically used in meth manufacture may cause cancer; damage the brain, liver, kidney, spleen, and immunologic system; and result in birth defects. Normal cleaning will not remove methamphetamine and some of the chemicals used to produce it. They may remain on eating and cooking utensils, floors, countertops, and absorbent materials. Toxic byproducts of meth manufacturing are often improperly disposed outdoors, endangering children and others who live, eat, play, or walk at or near the site.

Approximately 15 percent of meth labs are discovered as a result of a fire or explosion. Careless handling and overheating of highly volatile hazardous chemicals and waste and unsafe manufacturing methods cause solvents and other materials to burst into flames or explode. Improperly labeled and incompatible chemicals are often stored together, compounding the likelihood of fire and explosion. A single spark or cigarette ember can easily ignite highly combustible materials left on stovetops, near ignition sources, or on surfaces accessible to children. Hydro-generators used in illegal drug production constitute bombs waiting to be ignited by a careless act. Safety equipment is typically nonexistent or inadequate to protect a child.

Children living at methamphetamine laboratories are at increased risk for severe neglect and are more likely to be physically and sexually abused by members of their own family and known individuals at the site. Parents and caregivers who are meth dependent typically become careless, irritable, and violent, often losing their capacity to nurture their children. In these situations, the failure of parents to protect their children’s safety and to provide for essential food, dental and medical care including immunizations, proper hygiene, and grooming, and appropriate sleeping conditions is the norm. Older siblings in these homes often assume the role of caretaker. Some addicted parents fall into a deep sleep for days and cannot be awakened, further increasing the likelihood that their children will be exposed to toxic chemicals in their environment and to abusive acts committed by the other drug-using individuals who are present. Children living at meth lab sites may experience the added trauma of witnessing violence, being forced to participate in violence, caring for an incapacitated or injured parent or sibling, or watching the police arrest and remove a parent.

Hazardous living conditions and filth are common in meth lab homes. Explosives and booby traps together with trip wires, hidden sticks with nails or spikes, and light switches or electrical appliances wired to explosive devices have been found at some meth lab sites. Loaded guns and other weapons are usually present and often found in easy-to-reach locations. Code violations and substandard housing structures may also endanger children. They may be shocked or electrocuted by exposed wires or as a result of unsafe electrical equipment or practices. Poor ventilation, sometimes the result of windows sealed or covered with aluminum foil to prevent telltale odors from escaping, increases the possibility of combustion and the dangers of inhaling toxic fumes.

Meth homes also often lack heating, cooling, legally provided electricity, running water, or refrigeration. Living and play areas may be infested with rodents and insects, including cockroaches, fleas, ticks, and lice. Individuals responding to some lab sites have found hazardous waste products and rotten food on the ground, used needles and condoms strewn about, and dirty clothes, dishes, and garbage piled on floors and countertops. Toilets and bathtubs may be backed up or unusable, sometimes because the cook has dumped corrosive byproducts into the plumbing.

The inability of meth-dependent and meth-manufacturing parents to function as competent caregivers increases the likelihood that a child will be accidentally injured or will ingest drugs and poisonous substances. Baby bottles may be stored among toxic chemicals. Hazardous meth components may be stored in 2-liter soft drink bottles, fruit juice bottles, and pitchers in food preparation areas or the refrigerator. Ashtrays and drug paraphernalia such as razor blades, syringes, and pipes are often found scattered within a child’s reach, sometimes even in cribs. Infants are found with meth powder on their clothes, bare feet, and toys. The health hazards in meth homes from unhygienic conditions, needle sharing, and unprotected sexual activity may include hepatitis A and C, E. coli, syphilis, and HIV.

Children developing within the chaos, neglect, and violence of a clandestine methamphetamine laboratory environment experience stress and trauma that significantly affect their overall safety and health, including their behavioral, emotional, and cognitive functioning. They often exhibit low self-esteem, a sense of shame, and poor social skills. Consequences may include emotional and mental health problems, delinquency, teen pregnancy, school absenteeism and failure, isolation, and poor peer relations. Without effective intervention, many will imitate their parents and caretakers when they themselves become adults, engaging in criminal or violent behavior, inappropriate conduct, and alcohol and drug abuse.

Many children who live in drug homes exhibit an attachment disorder, which occurs when parents or caretakers fail to respond to an infant’s basic needs or do so unpredictably. 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. Attachment disorders place children at greater risk for later criminal behavior and substance abuse. To minimize long-term damage, children from these environments require mental health interventions and stable, nurturing caregivers.

Children Found in Meth Lab Homes: The living areas and physical condition of children found in two meth lab homes are described below.

a. The five children ranged in age from 1 to 7 years old. The one-bedroom home had no electricity or heat other than a gas stove with the oven door opened. Used hypodermic needles and dog feces littered areas of the residence where the children were found playing. Because there were no beds for the children, they slept with blankets underneath a small card table in the front room. The bathroom had sewage backed up in the tub, leaving no place for the children to bathe. A subsequent hospital exam revealed that all the children were infected with hepatitis C. The youngest was very ill. His liver was enlarged to the size of an adult’s. The children had needle marks on their feet, legs, hands, and arms from accidental contact with syringes.

b. At another lab site, a 2-year-old child was discovered during a lab seizure. Her parents both abused and manufactured methamphetamine. She was found with open, seeping sores around her eyes and on her forehead that resembled a severe burn. The condition was diagnosed as repeated, untreated cockroach bites.

Dangerous animals trained to protect illegal meth labs pose added physical hazards, and their feces contribute to the filth in areas where children play, sleep, and eat. Many children who live in meth homes also are exposed to pornographic materials or overt sexual activity. Others may actually be involved in the manufacturing process but receive no safety gear to protect them from noxious chemical fumes.

A coordinated multidisciplinary response to children found at clandestine meth lab sites will help ensure that all the needs of each child are met and that evidence is gathered to support the management and prosecution of each case.

Personnel who respond to seizures of illegal drug laboratories and conduct investigations may be from any of the law enforcement, social services, prosecution, environmental health, and medical disciplines.

These personnel usually respond according to their own agency’s protocols and, in most instances where multidisciplinary teams have not been established, operate independently. When jurisdictions do not coordinate their responses to these complicated scenes, personnel often overlook children’s needs or assume another agency will address these needs, fail to remove children from conditions of endangerment, or fail to gather adequate evidence to substantiate appropriate endangerment and other legal charges. Coordinated multidisciplinary investigations enhance information gathering, evidence integrity, interventions, and comprehensive treatment services for children and their families.

A medical professional that has been trained in diagnosing and treating children exposed to neglect and abuse, possible chemical hazards, and trauma should be a member of the multidisciplinary team. Before any seizure of a meth lab, operational agreements should be established with appropriate medical professionals to ensure that personnel are included who can help identify the children who have been harmed, determine the extent of harm, and provide treatment, support services, and monitoring. Frequently, public health nurses assigned to child protective services agencies will respond to the scene of a meth lab seizure when children are present.

Toxicology testing and a physical examination should occur as soon as possible after a child is found living at or visiting a methamphetamine production site. A medical protocol should instruct that search warrants served at methamphetamine manufacturing sites require the collection of children’s urine within 12 hours. Medical personnel must document each child’s physical and mental condition, using photographs as appropriate. They also must document any relevant injuries or exposures that occurred before lab seizure and provide diagnosis and treatment for drug exposures resulting from the manufacturing process, ingestion of drugs and hazardous substances, and physical injuries and abuse. Results of these medical evaluations and testimony of the examining physician, toxicologist, or other specialists may be required in child endangerment cases.

To address the complex behavioral and emotional problems experienced by these children, a psychologist, clinical social worker, or other mental health professional should participate on the team. Crisis intervention may be needed when children are removed from their families. Referrals for therapeutic services are often necessary for children coping with the effects of long-term neglect and abuse. The mental health professional should be consulted throughout the prosecution of a case, working closely with child protective services, law enforcement, and prosecutors to consider the emotional state of the child.

Child protective services (CPS) typically operate under local county offices of social services, and, when necessary, intervene on behalf of children at the direction of the juvenile court. When parents who are illegally manufacturing or abusing drugs are suspected of child endangerment, child welfare workers determine the course of the child welfare investigation and share information with law enforcement officers, district attorneys’ offices, and health care and mental health agencies. Investigations by CPS and/or adult protective services who become involved when vulnerable adults are found at the scene may involve law enforcement assistance when necessary for the safety of children or other vulnerable family members.

The CPS worker participating on a multidisciplinary response team often coordinates medical examinations, including transportation to and from appointments, and coordinates communication between the criminal and dependency and/or family law courts. CPS workers interview children and parents, take children into emergency custody, assess the need for both short- and long-term protective custody, arrange for timely medical and mental health evaluations and follow up care, and gather information for the juvenile court. They coordinate these activities with law enforcement to ensure that child endangerment issues are adequately evaluated. CPS workers also must provide records of any relevant current and past investigations. The responding CPS worker also may be required to testify in child endangerment cases.

Law enforcement organizations that may be involved in both planned and unplanned seizures of illegal methamphetamine laboratories include city police departments, county sheriffs’ departments, state departments of justice or bureaus of narcotics enforcement, and federal law enforcement agencies. Law enforcement personnel at all levels of jurisdiction who find children living at illegal drug manufacturing sites must act to ensure the immediate safety of the children present, ensure that children are placed in a safe environment with a responsible caretaker not relatives with similar substance abuse problems, which commonly occurs, contact CPS at the local level, and file child endangerment charges against endangering adults when appropriate. Close coordination and communication with CPS can help the officer carry out these responsibilities.

To minimize trauma to children and ensure consistency between the CPS and criminal investigations, CPS workers and law enforcement officers should jointly interview children found living at clandestine meth lab sites and children known to have been present during meth lab operation. Neighbors and witnesses should also be interviewed. Officers must document any present or potential danger, assess the level of danger and the likelihood of harm, and assess any intentional aspects of endangerment. The clothing and other belongings of children found at meth labs may be saved as evidence and tested for chemical contamination.

State statutes vary with regard to the circumstances that warrant endangerment charges. To prove child endangerment, law enforcement officers must use photographs, diagrams, and careful descriptions to document children’s physical injuries or access to dangers.

Photographs, diagrams, and careful descriptions also are critical in documenting the proximity of the methamphetamine laboratory and its hazards (such as booby traps, weapons, exposed wiring, chemical contaminants, waste products, and other unsafe matter) to the areas where children live, play, and sleep. All materials must be filed in a timely manner for both the CPS and criminal proceedings to progress. The testimony of investigating officers and results from the forensic chemists’ findings will be required to prove child endangerment. Their descriptions must be specific to codified rules of evidence.

Fire department personnel and hazardous materials professionals, including toxics control specialists and cleanup personnel, also play a key role in documenting conditions of child endangerment, including the potential for fire or explosion, presence of hazardous materials, improper storage of chemicals, and poor ventilation. Their training should address policies, responsibilities, processes, documentation, and procedures related to the examination, transportation, immediate treatment, and referrals of drug-endangered children living at illegal meth labs. A specialist in hazardous materials involved in the investigation should list all the chemicals found at an illegal drug-manufacturing site to help medical personnel assess the physical condition of children found there. The reports or testimony of hazardous materials specialists who respond to the site and other experts will be required in court.

Criminal prosecutors are responsible for filing and supporting charges of child endangerment, and the short- and long-term interests of the child must be an important consideration in the criminal drug prosecution. By reviewing all the evidence gathered, charging the drug violations as appropriate, and filing child endangerment charges against the appropriate parties, the prosecutor strengthens the multidisciplinary team’s efforts to achieve favorable child protection outcomes. Communication between CPS workers, probation officers, health care personnel, police officers, and attorneys should continue throughout the period of prosecution. Communication between the criminal and dependency and/or family law courts is crucial to avoid creating conflicts or jeopardizing either case outcome. Based on the nature of the crime and the jurisdiction in which it occurred, prosecution may take place in local, state, or federal courts. At the sentencing phase, the court establishes sanctions and activities considered necessary for rehabilitation. Even if charges of child endangerment are dismissed, the prosecutor can ask that the court consider conditions relating to the child endangerment charge in sentencing.

In cases in which one parent or caregiver is not charged with endangerment but lesser charges are levied, the prosecutor can play an important role in safeguarding the child’s welfare by influencing the terms of probation. These terms often include drug treatment, parenting classes, and other rehabilitative measures such as parent-child counseling to help the parent change his or her lifestyle and focus on the child’s welfare. Compliance with all terms of family reunification care plans or other dependency/family court orders also should be included in probation terms.

Children who are living or present at clandestine methamphetamine laboratory sites require immediate attention and care. Interagency protocols should be established in every jurisdiction where clandestine meth labs are found. The teams involved in seizing clandestine methamphetamine laboratories should include, or should have immediate access to, qualified personnel who can respond immediately to the potential health needs of any children who are present or living at the site. Actions should include taking children into protective custody and arranging for child protective services, immediately testing them for methamphetamine exposure, conducting medical and mental health assessments, and ensuring short- and long-term care and follow-up. A coordinated multidisciplinary team approach is critical to ensure that the needs of meth’s youngest victims are met and that adequate information is available to prosecute child endangerment cases successfully.

Methamphetamine, or meth, is the fastest growing drug threat and the most prevalent synthetic drug manufactured in the United States. Refined manufacturing has significantly increased meth’s strength. Called crank, speed, go fast, ice, or crystal, methamphetamine can be injected, snorted, smoked, or ingested orally. Meth is usually a white, odorless, bitter-tasting powder that dissolves easily in water. Crystal meth is often clear; it is found in large chunky crystals that are smoked. Methamphetamine users initially experience a short, intense rush that is followed by a sense of euphoria lasting up to 8 hours.

Methamphetamine use increases heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and rate of breathing. It produces extra energy and stamina, an increased libido, a sense of invulnerability, and a decrease in appetite. Chronic, high-dose methamphetamine abusers may exhibit increased nervousness, paranoia, schizophrenia-like symptoms, irritability, confusion, and insomnia. Violent and erratic behaviors frequently occur in the last phase of meth bingeing. Withdrawal from high doses of meth invariably produces depression, which varies in severity and duration but may last for months or even years.

This highly addictive, synthetic central nervous system stimulant is produced using chemicals extracted from readily available products. These products include over-the-counter cold medicines and diet pills and household products like lithium camera batteries, matches, tincture of iodine, and hydrogen peroxide. Flammable household products, including charcoal lighter fluid, gasoline, kerosene, paint thinner, rubbing alcohol, and mineral spirits, may be used in the mix. Corrosive products, such as the muriatic acid used in pools and spas, sulfuric acid in battery acid, and sodium hydroxide from lye-based drain cleaners, also may be used in the manufacturing process. In rural areas where anhydrous ammonia is used as a fertilizer, farmers are increasingly finding “cooks” using this highly toxic chemical to produce meth have tapped their ammonia tanks.


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Submitted: 06/25/06

Description: Now, as more and more children are found living at home-based labs, law enforcement, medical, and social services professionals are showing growing awareness of the enormous physical, developmental, emotional, and psychosocial damage these children may incur.

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