Kids from meth families face extra difficulties

Kids from meth families face extra difficulties

A 14-year-old boy said that after his mother started using methamphetamine, she no longer acted like a mom should.

In contrast, his 13-year-old brother believes the government is persecuting their father unfairly.

Their observations are among comments collected from children in foster care because their parents have used methamphetamine.

Such children face extra difficulties in foster care, according to a team of researchers looking at children from homes where parents have used meth. The team includes professionals from the University of Illinois School of Social Work, Department of Children and Family Services and Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.

A second paper from the group, "A child's-eye view of parent methamphetamine abuse: implications for helping foster families to succeed," will be published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review and is available online at

Wendy Haight, an associate professor at the UI School of Social Work, lead researcher and first author of the paper, said the project began three years ago as workers at DCFS' Charleston field office noted an increase of children being placed in foster homes after their parents were caught with meth.

The initial research, published last year, reported on the effects of meth-abuse homes as seen by child care specialists, teachers and police in a seven-county area.

That paper, titled "In These Bleak Days: Parent Methamphetamine Abuse in the Rural Midwest," reported a variety of ways children whose parents used or manufactured methamphetamine are put at risk. The home-based labs used to cook meth have dangerous and toxic chemicals, and the meth users are often paranoid, armed and violent.

"Children's experience of this culture is characterized by environmental danger, chaos, neglect, isolation, abuse and loss," researchers wrote.

Haight said that finding was reinforced in the second paper through many comments from children, who reported being left alone and hungry by parents abusing meth. Three said they were physically abused, and others said they were told to steal and lie to authorities.

The research involved interviews with 18 children, ages 7 to 14, who had been placed in foster care. At the time of the interviews, they had been in foster care from five to 39 months.

"The vast majority of the kids we work with love their parents," Haight said.

Asked about their "scariest time," many children said it was when they were taken from their homes and placed in foster care.

"Many, months later, still mourn the loss of their parents," Haight said. "Children see their parents as sick. Kids are often in caretaking roles, not only for themselves and siblings, but also for their parents, in some cases."

Foster parents who take in children from meth homes often report that those children will not let them parent, Haight said. Some resist rules and struggle to fit into routines involving regular meal and bedtimes. And some display symptoms of trauma, including nightmares, fear of adults or attention problems.

But the research also showed there are variations. Not all of the children have mental health or substance abuse problems. Some embraced their parents' beliefs and lifestyles; others did not.

For example, one 14-year-old boy accused his mother of letting her children do drugs, drink alcohol and have sex. He reported her to police.

"You know, it was just horrible," the boy said. He did not want to return to her, saying, "She's lost her trust with me."

The 14-year-old boy also attributed abuse by his mother to her use of drugs.

"I don't think she expected to hit us that hard because she didn't know what she was doing, but sometimes, you know, it got out of hand," he told the researchers.

A 10-year-old girl told of her father beating up her mother "all the time."

"I would hit my dad because he wouldn't get off her," the girl said. "He would stand her up against the wall and started choking her. I kept on hitting him and kicked him."

She also reported her mother hit her father in the head with a hammer and then hit herself in the head.

In what Haight described as "an extreme case," a 9-year-old girl reported she was troubled by an incident when she was in kindergarten: "My mom got me high one time. She and a man were smoking dope under a blanket, and they put me under there and got me high."

Haight said a majority of the children interviewed need mental health treatment.

"Most had very little emotional support," Haight said.

The researchers are using what they've learned to help foster parents and others who deal with such children, she said.

James Black, a psychiatrist at SIU, has worked with children and adults from meth homes. He also worked part-time at a state prison and with some fathers who used meth.

"Some of these children are some of the most severely affected by trauma and attachment disorder that I've ever worked with," Black said.

All children need to grow up in good homes and have good parents, but these children are detached from their parents and very neglected, he said.

"The parents are high or very exhausted," Black said. "Their parents' drug activity results in people coming into their homes who bring in dogs, weapons and dangerous materials.

"There is a lot of criminal behavior, a lot of bad people. A lot of these kids have seen things they shouldn't have seen."

He said some children in meth homes are not abused, but "kids who enter foster care are worse off in mental health than kids in the general community – and these kids are worse off than most who enter foster care.

"One of the problems is this is a rural issue, so resources are limited. It's hard enough to get doctors out here."

He said there is a "triple whammy" for many meth abusers not getting the help they need:

– Part of rural culture is that families don't rely on or even accept government assistance.

– Meth users don't want government contact because they are involved in criminal activity.

– And there is a chemical or pharmaceutical consequence of using meth that causes meth users to become paranoid. So, for all those reasons, meth abusers tend not to get counseling, education or other assistance.

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