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The Life and Meth of Babies

October 19, 2003

"Meth babies" have not set off the public frenzy that crack babies did 15 years ago. But as the pending sentencing of Amy Prien makes clear, the less-publicized methamphetamine epidemic is proving just as devastating to children.

That is the message Riverside County prosecutors hoped to send when they charged the 31-year-old Prien with second-degree murder after her youngest child, 3-month-old Jacob Wesley Smith, died of an overdose of methamphetamine. How the infant came to ingest the illegal stimulant was unclear, but last month a jury held the single mother, who used and dealt the drug, responsible.

Prien's attorney may appeal the verdict. Whatever the ultimate outcome, at least one message from this case is indisputable: It's time for the public to face up to meth mayhem.

Crack made headlines in the 1980s for being so addictive that users abandoned children, jobs and their own health, and for the gun violence that exploded around street-corner sales. Although crack users come in all colors and from all income groups, much of that commerce took place in poor urban neighborhoods.

The equally addictive methamphetamine, also known as meth, crank, ice and crystal, often is made in "kitchen labs" and consumed at home, making it more hidden than the violent open-air crack markets. "Cooks" combine common and cheap ingredients such as over-the-counter cold medicines with volatile red phosphorous from matches or anhydrous ammonia from farm fertilizer. Meth was initially the drug of poor rural whites.

That niche expanded as drug enforcement agents squeezed cocaine trafficking. Just last month Orange County sheriff's deputies arrested a 22-year-old woman for allegedly turning her parents' house in a gated Laguna Niguel neighborhood into a meth lab. Of offenders diverted to treatment in 2001 under California's Proposition 36, 50% had abused methamphetamine. Cocaine was a distant second at 15%.

A Columbia University study of child welfare nationwide found that at least 70% of child neglect and abuse cases involved substance abuse (including alcohol). But locally, says Sylvia Deporto, deputy director of Riverside County Child Protective Services, "It feels like 99%." Indeed, these days most such cases involve meth.

Meth crime is not victimless. Toxic fumes from manufacture can burn the skin and lungs. Its prolonged use burns the mind, causing psychosis and paranoia that can lead to irrational outbursts. Like its manufacture and use, the violence meth begets is often hidden, taking place in the home rather than the street.

Sheriff's deputies and social workers are as achingly aware of the scope of the epidemic as the public seems oblivious to it. They have teamed up to fight it with the Drug Endangered Children Program, pioneered in Butte County north of Sacramento and now copied in Riverside and nationwide.

Before this program existed, deputies used to bust a mom-and-pop meth lab, then release any children found in the home to the mother as long as the father agreed to take the rap. No one checked the kids out medically or looked too closely at whether the mother or other relatives were "using." Now, nurses and social workers roll out with hazmat-suited sheriff's deputies to the site, check and continue to monitor any children found there -- most test positive for toxic chemicals -- and make sure they have a safe place to stay, even if it means removing them from their families.

The sheer number of cases leaves social workers overstretched, and the program itself survives on a patchwork of federal and state grants that, given the budget crisis, are at risk of disappearing. That would be a crime; an independent evaluation found the interagency approach to be both highly effective and cost-efficient.

So are "drug courts," another state innovation in which drug offenders undergo a treatment program under close court monitoring. Recidivism is low, and monitoring costs about $3,000 a year, compared with $25,000 a year to keep a person in prison. The cost of doing nothing -- from the lost productivity of adult addicts to the special-education needs of their neglected children -- is incalculable.

Meth tempts users with a shortcut through life's troubles. Many people start taking the stimulant so they can stay awake for late-night shifts, lose weight (part of the drug's appeal to young women) or escape a life that doesn't offer much to feel good about. Eventually they need more of the drug to achieve the same high, and then more still to stop the pain of withdrawal. Prolonged use of meth fundamentally changes the brain's chemical makeup; it can even mimic schizophrenia.

Addicts at that stage may not heed a message from Amy Prien's conviction; Prien herself continued using even after Jacob's death. But everyone on the interagency team who was interviewed expressed hope that the trial would, if not warn users, prompt neighbors, physicians and others to recognize signs of abuse and seek help for children involved. The challenge will be to make sure that help is there.

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