ST. PAUL, Minn. — The unseen victims behind statistics on adult drug abuse are children.
Theirs are the hidden faces behind the news reports of drug arrests and record cocaine seizures, behind the public policy debates on treatment versus punishment.
And in America there are hundreds of thousands of them.
They are youngsters like Ryan Carlson, 10, and his brother Kristofer, 8, whose mother shot cocaine into her veins for longer than her sons have been alive. Consequently, the two St. Paul boys endured an early childhood of uncertainty and neglect. Unkempt and underfed, they were shuffled from home to home until Kristofer eventually was admitted to a medical facility to be treated for homicidal and suicidal tendencies.
They are children like Deann Shorter, 12, and her siblings, Twoana, 10, James, 8, and Dashalla, 2, who have spent the last two years in St. Paul foster homes after being taken from their mother, an addict who neglected them so severely that she lost all parental rights.
They are like Terri, 12, a Maryland girl who watched in horror one night as her family wrestled a doped-up uncle to the floor to keep him from leaping through a window of their 20th-floor apartment in the belief that he could fly.
They are like twins Susan and Shonda, 13, whose father's drug use in Newark, N.J., transformed him into a violent, abusive husband. Eventually, their family was torn apart and their mother fled the state with her children.
They are adoptees Rene and Taralyn Ankrum, two California children who are among the nation's estimated 300,000 drug babies. Because of their mothers' prenatal drug use, they were born with neurological and psychological damage so severe that they face a possible lifetime of developmental disorders.
While the nation struggles to bring narcotics use under control, a legacy of adult drug abuse is being etched into the lives of the next generation--children who will carry its scars even if they never smoke a joint, pop a pill or snort a line of cocaine.
Teachers, counselors, social workers, psychologists and children themselves say that for many youngsters today, growing up in America means maneuvering through an obstacle course of drugs and drug-related activity.
"In one way or another, whether they are bystanders or active participants, rich or poor, black or white, whether they are urban, suburban or rural, children cannot escape being affected by the increased use of drugs in our society," said Nancy Peterson, spokeswoman for the Chicago-based National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse. "It's permeated about every facet of life. It's part of the fabric of our society these days."
Across the nation, those who deal with social trends paint a dismal picture of drugs' impact on the innocent:
--Schools and welfare agencies must deal with growing numbers of children whose two-parent families have been shattered by drug use.
--Overburdened foster care systems face an army of neglected and physically and sexually abused children, the majority of them victims of drug-using parents.
--Children have become one of the fastest growing segments of the homeless population, and officials say many belong to addicted parents who have been forced onto the street after spending their money on narcotics.
--Thousands of children drift from guardian to guardian as they await the return of parents--particularly mothers--who are increasingly serving time in jails and prisons for drug-related offenses. For the past eight years, the number of women in prison has grown at a rate faster than that of men. Prison officials estimate that nearly 80% of those women are there for drug-related crimes and eight of every 10 have children.
--Schools, teachers and administrators are wrestling with the question of how to educate a huge population of babies exposed to drugs while in the womb, whose diminished abilities foretell an uncertain future. They may represent as many as 10% of all American children born annually, according to the National Assn. for Perinatal Addiction Research and Education.
Even children whose lives are not directly affected by parental drug use cannot escape drugs' impact. In interviews across the country, hundreds of youngsters at elementary schools, intermediate schools and high schools were asked: "What are the worst things that you personally have seen drugs make people do?"
"I was in the car with someone on drugs and they got into an accident," said Deedee, 12, of St. Paul.
"I saw this guy come out of his house naked and six cops tried to hold him down and they couldn't," said Bert, 15, in Maryland.
"There was this guy who got high on drugs and tried to rob a store and got arrested," said Michael, 13, in Baton Rouge, La. "They do stupid stuff that they later regret."
"The person I know, he would always argue," said Kimberly, 11, of Minneapolis. "He would say he wasn't on drugs, but he'd go in the bathroom and take some."