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Surge in Meth Use Takes Toll on Rural Children

Crime: Abuse cases are on the rise, particularly in the Antelope Valley, where labs proliferate. Overwhelmed social workers pin hopes on state.

May 07, 2001|NOAKI SCHWARTZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was the baby left in the trash bag. The little girl raped after her first birthday. And the tortured 7-month-old, her tiny face pocked by cockroach and rat bites, and her body riddled with bedsores so infected that doctors had to remove part of her leg.

All the incidents happened in the desert. All the parents used meth.

Much like crack cocaine fueled urban violence in the 1980s, methamphetamine is behind a surge in rural child abuse. It has overwhelmed social service and law enforcement agencies already spread thin over vast expanses and unequipped to cope with the problem, experts say.

Social workers, sometimes wearing bulletproof vests, spend their days rescuing children from reeking meth labs and hollow-eyed parents.

California produces 85% of the nation's methamphetamine. And seven of its counties--Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Butte and Shasta--are targets of state legislation aimed at addressing meth-related child abuse.

The most recent state study found more than 1,200 children in clandestine laboratories around the state in 1999, with Los Angeles County accounting for a quarter of the cases. Children lived in about 20% of the 310 labs uncovered in the county, a proportion that is expected to double when 2000 figures are released. The problem is most severe on the county's fringes, where treatment centers are scarce, officials say.

"At least with the urban crack epidemic in the '80s they developed an infrastructure that responded to it," said Dr. Alex Stalcup, who runs a federally funded meth research center in Concord, Calif. "Out in rural areas you can go miles before there's a treatment option of any kind."

With horrific tales of abuse emerging from wind-blown motels, ranches and mobile home parks, police, nurses and social workers in the Antelope and Yucca valleys say they need help.

That help is in the form of a $10-million bill before the Legislature that would establish a five-year, multi-agency task force to place children exposed to meth in decent homes. Until recently, children found in meth labs and the homes of addicts were placed in the care of relatives or friends of users with little regard to their background.

"We used to call an uncle, aunt, grandpa or friend to collect the child," said Sgt. Tony Hollins, head of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's meth lab section in Lancaster. "What we found, though, is that they were continuing to be a victim. All we'd done was put them back in a worse situation than they were already in."

Antelope Valley Targeted for Funds

If the bill becomes law, its first disbursement in Los Angeles County would go to the Antelope Valley, officials said.

Jean McCandless, a veteran of the county's Children and Family Services Department, said the money is long overdue in sparsely populated areas where meth surfaced more than a decade ago.

It was in the mid-'80s when the drug, which can be smoked, injected or swallowed, began creeping into the Antelope Valley from Mexico, she said. The high desert community, where neighbors live far apart, was ideal for meth labs, which emit a vile mix of fecal and ether odors. And as desert dwellers saw how it was easy to produce meth in as little as 24 hours, the drug became a home-grown product.

"It just kind of started slipping in," McCandless said. "In the mid-'80s or so, we started noticing that suddenly meth was playing a bigger role in cases."

The cheap stimulant produces a powerful euphoria and sense of acuity that last much longer than cocaine or crack. Because "tweakers" can stay awake for days, meth is popular with truckers, students and the bleary workers who make the long-haul drives to Los Angeles from the desert. From 1985 to 1994, hospital admissions for meth addicts increased by more than 450% across the state.

Despite that surge, there is not a single meth treatment center in the Antelope Valley, said Paul Gaeta, an assistant administrator for Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services. The nearest inpatient program is 20 miles away in Acton.

Janet, 39, who asked that her last name not be published, is receiving treatment for meth use at the Acton clinic.

"I got four kids and meth let me get a lot done," said Janet, whose deeply lined face makes her appear much older. "At some point, you cross over and you stop getting anything done. You open a drawer to clean and next thing you know you're picking dirt out of the corners . . .

"You sit in front of a mirror and pick at your face until it's one giant scab," she added. "I taught my kids to be self-sufficient at 3 years old and open a can of soup for themselves."

Meth's initial high plunges into paranoia and rage, fed by a lack of sleep. Users become single-minded in their need to get more of the drug, losing any ability to empathize, even with their own children. The situation can spiral into grotesque acts of abuse or neglect on children desperately seeking attention.

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