2005-08-26 21:23:44 UTC
How hysteria over methamphetamine has become the latest excuse to
"take the child and run."
By Richard Wexler, President
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform
"A cohort of babies is now being born whose future is closed to them from
day one. Theirs will be a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance,
of permanent inferiority. At best, a menial life of severe deprivation. And
all of this is being biologically determined from birth."
If that sounds like something you just read about methamphetamine, that's
understandable. It certainly sounds like the apocalyptic quotes that have
appeared in 2005 everywhere from The New York Times to Newsweek to CBS and
In fact, the quote dates back to 1989. Columnist Charles Krauthammer was
writing not about methamphetamine, but about crack cocaine.
None of it was true.
More than two decades later, it is clear that the horrifying predictions
about so-called "crack babies" were the result of hype and hysteria, not
science and scholarship. Indeed, as the website stats.org concluded in this
article: "Being labeled a "crack baby" appears to have done more harm to
these children than the cocaine itself did." Another Stats.org article on
media meth myths is available here.
But it wasn't just the babies who were stereotyped and stigmatized. We were
repeatedly told that crack was harder on children because of its special
appeal to women. We were told that crack was so addictive that it stole
these mothers' material instinct. And we were told crack addiction was
None of it was true.
The false claims were used as an all-purpose justification for soaring
numbers of foster care placements, by child welfare systems whose response
to every problem can be boiled down to "take the child and run." The label
"crack addict" was thrown around with the same abandon as the label "crack
baby," and the assumption was that, since there was no hope for the mothers,
the only alternative was foster-care for the children. Any time anyone
questioned the high rate at which children were removed from their homes,
the child welfare establishment blithely labeled every case a "crack case"
and insisted there was no choice.
None of it was true.
Indeed, by October 2004, Columbia Journalism Review had published an article
ending with a plea to journalists not to make the same mistakes with "meth"
as they made with crack. But, it seems, few reporters listened. One need
only substitute "crack" for "meth" and the recent crop of stories sound
identical to their counterparts from the 1980s.
If anything, the term used for children this time is even more insidious: To
call a child a "meth orphan" writes off both the child and his or her
The problem is real, the solutions have been phony
There is something else that addiction to crack and meth have in common:
Both are very serious, very real problems. Addiction to either substance
requires intervention to ensure that children are safe. The issue is how to
intervene. Sometimes there truly is no choice but to remove the children and
place them in foster care. In other cases, children can be placed with
extended family members. But in many other cases, there is another option
that should be tried first: drug treatment, including inpatient programs
where parents can remain with their children.
Meth addiction is treatable
A review of the literature by Prof. Richard Rawson, Associate Director of
Integrated Substance Abuse Programs at UCLA's David Geffen School of
Medicine, concludes that addiction to methamphetamine is just as treatable
as addiction to cocaine. Furthermore, it takes no longer to treat meth
addiction than to treat any other drug addiction.
And Dr. Rawson is not alone in his assessment.
According to a letter signed by 93 medical doctors, scientists, researchers
in psychology and treatment specialists:
"[C]laims that methamphetamine users are virtually untreatable with small
recovery rates lack foundation in medical research. Analysis of dropout,
retention in treatment and re-incarceration rates and other measures of
outcome, in several recent studies indicate that methamphetamine users
respond in an equivalent manner as individuals admitted for other drug abuse
problems. Research also suggests the need to improve and expand treatment
offered to methamphetamine users."
Further evidence comes from a county often identified in media accounts as
hard-hit by meth, Sacramento County, California. According to the federal
government's National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare, the
county developed a comprehensive approach to such cases, emphasizing
treatment. Between 1998 and 2004, the number of children taken from their
parents actually has declined by more than one-third. The emphasis on
treatment has reduced the length of time in foster care for children who
must be removed from their homes. And the county actually is getting better
treatment results for parents addicted to meth than for those using cocaine
The notion that there is no point in trying drug treatment in meth cases
because it won't work or it takes too long is one more meth myth.
Why bother with treatment?
But why bother? Why bother helping a parent who is addicted to meth? Here
again, there are lessons from crack.
University of Florida researchers studied two groups of infants born with
cocaine in their systems. One group was placed in foster care, the other
with birth mothers able to care for them. After six months, the babies were
tested using all the usual measures of infant development: rolling over,
sitting up, reaching out. Consistently, the children placed with their birth
mothers did better. For the foster children, being taken from their mothers
was more toxic than the cocaine.
Still another study looked at foster care "alumni." Among the conclusions:
---Alumni of foster care suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at a rate
more than double the rate for Gulf War Veterans.
---At least one-third said they were abused by a foster parent or another
adult in a foster home. (The study didn't even ask about one of the most
common sources of abuse in foster care, foster children abusing each other,
so the real figure almost certainly is higher).
---Only 20 percent of the alumni could be said to be doing well. (For more
on this study, see NCCPR's analysis, 80 Percent Failure, available at
It is extremely difficult to take a swing at "bad mothers" without the blow
landing on their children. If we really believe all the rhetoric about
putting the needs of children first, then we need to put those needs ahead
of everything - including how we may feel about their parents. That doesn't
mean we can simply leave children with addicts. It does mean that drug
treatment for the parent is almost always a better first choice than foster
care for the child -- because it is urgent to save children from people in
the grip of another addiction: an addiction to foster care so powerful that
they would throw children far too easily into a system that churns out
walking wounded four times out of five.
Estimates of the number of cases in which drugs in general or any drug in
particular are "involved" in child welfare cases are just guesses - a
caseworker checks a box on a form because she thinks maybe there are drugs
involved in some way; a supervisor guesses how often that box has been
checked on the form, the p.r. person for the child welfare agency guesses
how often supervisors have told him they're seeing the box checked on the
form. And everyone has an incentive to guess high - since it's considered an
automatic justification for tearing a child from everyone loving and
It's no wonder that estimates for the proportion of cases involving any
drug, range from 20 percent to 90 percent.
The term "involved" contributes to the hype.
Consider a case profiled in a thoughtful, careful way by the Portland
Oregonian. The mother used meth, but apparently was in treatment and doing
well. The father was not accused of drug use at all. The child was in foster
care because there was no drug treatment facility in the local community for
the mother, and because of child welfare systems' pervasive bias against
Yet, for statistical purposes, this is a "meth case." And when child welfare
agencies claim that a huge percentage of their cases "involve" meth use,
that includes cases like this one.
But what about the labs?
Unlike crack cocaine, methamphetamine can be manufactured in home labs - and
almost every news account emphasizes the labs and children taken from those
labs. But such cases represent only a tiny fraction of "meth cases."
Between 2000 and 2003, child protective services agencies removed children
from their parents 1,188,000 times. During that same time period, 10,580
children were found to be "affected" by methamphetamine manufacture, with
4,662 living in labs and 2,881 of them placed in foster care. (Many of the
others probably were placed informally with relatives).
In other words, of all the entries into foster care from 2000 to 2003, at
least 99.1 percent of them had nothing to do with meth labs.
Even in Oregon, the substance abuse program manager for the state child
welfare agency says that ".the number of times that [child protective]
workers confronted actual manufacturing was rare in their practice compared
to the number of families affected by methamphetamine abuse and dependence."
Some states respond better than others
Oregon is one state that has been hard hit by meth. But, unfortunately, like
other states, such as Iowa and Colorado, Oregon also is a state addicted to
---Oregon took away children, proportionately, at one of the highest rates
in the country as far back as 1985. Why were so many children being taken
then, long before any "meth epidemic"?
---Oregon, Iowa, and Colorado all take away children at a rate significantly
higher than California - long another state known for having a serious meth
---Alabama has a serious meth problem - and it's had an impact on the foster
care population, with increases in removals in recent years. But before meth
hit, Alabama was hit by a class-action lawsuit requiring the state to
thoroughly reform its system to emphasize family preservation. As a result,
Alabama gained years of experience in safely keeping children out of foster
care, making it better able to handle the influx of meth cases. So today,
despite meth, Alabama still takes away children at one of the lowest rates
in the nation. At the same time, re-abuse of children left in their own
homes has been cut by 60 percent - to less than half the national average -
and, an independent court monitor has found that, as a result of the
reforms, child safety has improved.
---Illinois also has a meth problem. Yet Illinois removes children at a rate
even lower than Alabama, and, again, independent court-appointed monitors
say as foster care has been reduced, child safety has improved.
And as noted above, by emphasizing treatment, Sacramento County, California
has been able to cope with a serious meth problem while reducing entries
into foster care.
A good child welfare system does such a good job of keeping other children
safely in their own homes, that when a new drug becomes the scourge of the
state, the system can handle it.
A political agenda
Hysteria over drugs has always been fueled by those with a vested interest
in taking away children, and the current wave of meth stories is no
In part, there is a political motivation behind the false claims about meth.
The federal government wants to allow states to use billions of dollars now
reserved for foster care for various prevention programs, including drug
treatment. But the child welfare establishment wants to hoard the money for
Not only can this money be used only for foster care, the funding is fueled
by child removal. For every eligible child they put into foster care, states
get from 50 to 83 cents back on the dollar for foster care costs.
The child welfare establishment wants us to believe that methamphetamine is
virtually untreatable because they want us to believe the only option for
the children is foster care. They want us to believe the only option is
foster care in order to justify their demand that those billions of dollars
be reserved for foster care, and nothing else.
Indeed, the campaign against making foster care funding flexible has been
led by the Child Welfare League of America, the trade association for public
and private agencies. Most private agencies are paid for each day they hold
a child in foster care. Anything that threatens to close the "open spigot"
of federal foster care aid threatens the ability of states to keep doling
out per diem payments to private agencies for endless foster care. That
threatens the private agencies' existence.
And that's why the biggest addiction problem in child welfare is neither
meth nor crack nor any other drug. The biggest addiction problem in child
welfare is great big, prestigious, mainstream private child welfare agencies
with blue-chip boards of directors that are addicted to their per diem
payments for holding children in foster care.
And they're putting their addiction ahead of the children.
Cited in Kendra Hurley, "The Crack Legacy: Ditch the low expectations for
'meth babies'" Newsday, April 14, 2004.
Maia Szalavitz, "The Media Go Into 'Crack Baby' Mode Over Meth," Stats.org,
Mariah Blake, "The Damage Done: Crack Babies Talk Back," Columbia Journalism
Review, September/October 2004.
Richard A. Rawson, Ph.D, Challenges in Responding to the Spread of
Methamphetamine Use in the US: Recommendations Concerning the Treatment of
Individuals with Methamphetamine-Related Disorders (Los Angeles: UCLA
Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, David Geffen School of Medicine).
The letter was distributed by National Advocates for Pregnant Women. Copies
are available from NCCPR.
Nancy K. Young, Director, National Center on Substance Abuse and Child
Welfare, Fighting Meth in America's Heartland: Assessing the Impact on Local
Law Enforcement and Child Welfare Agencies, statement to the U.S. House of
Representatives Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug
Policy and Human Resources, July 26, 2005, p.4., available online at
Ibid, pp. 15-18.
Kathleen Wobie, Marylou Behnke et. al., To Have and To Hold: A Descriptive
Study of Custody Status Following Prenatal Exposure to Cocaine, paper
presented at joint annual meeting of the American Pediatric Society and the
Society for Pediatric Research, May 3, 1998.
Peter Pecora, et. al., Improving Family Foster Care: Findings from the
Northwest Foster Care Alumni Study (Seattle: Casey Family Programs, 2005).
Bryan Denson, Emily Tsao and Lori Tobias, "Meth or Motherhood," Portland
Oregonian, March 27, 2005.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Trends in Foster Care and
Adoption, chart, available at
Young, note 6, supra, p.12.
Cited in Young, note 6, supra, p.11.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children,
Youth and Families, Child Welfare Statistical Fact Book, 1985: Substitute
Care. (Washington, DC: Maximus, Inc.), pp. I-7 to I-11
NCCPR compares rates of child removal by dividing the number of children
taken away over the course of a year in each state by the total number of
impoverished children in each state.
Erik Eckholm , "Once Woeful, Alabama Is Model in Child Welfare," The New
York Times, August 20, 2005.
Ivor D. Groves, System of Care Implementation: Performance, Outcomes, and
Compliance, March, 1996, Exec. Summary, p.3.
Matthew Franck, "The Pendulum," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 1, 2005.
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform / 53 Skyhill Road (Suite 202)
/ Alexandria Virginia, 22314 (703) 212-2006 / ***@nccpr.org / www.nccpr.org