Feature: Methamphetamine as Child Abuse Laws Gain Ground, But Do They Help or Hurt?

When Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) signed a package of anti-methamphetamine measures into law last Thursday, Michigan became at least the sixth state to define either the use or the production of meth where children are present as child abuse. The trend is part of an all-out offensive against methamphetamine use and manufacture by law enforcement and child welfare agencies, but child protection critics and maternal rights advocates say it is a destructive and unnecessary response.

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, at least 21 states and the District of Columbia define some drug use, distribution, or sales as child abuse or neglect. Among the various laws:

  • Manufacture of a controlled substance in the presence of child or on the premises occupied by a child (Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Montana, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia).
  • Allowing a child to be present where the chemicals or equipment for the manufacture of controlled substances are used or stored (Arizona and New Mexico).
  • Selling, distributing, or giving drugs or alcohol to a child (Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, and Texas).
  • Use of a controlled substance by a caregiver that impairs the caregiver's ability to adequately care for the child (Kentucky, New York, Rhode Island, and Texas).
  • Exposure of the child to drug paraphernalia, the criminal sale or distribution of drugs, or drug-related activity (North Dakota, Montana and Virginia, and the District of Columbia, respectively).

When it comes to methamphetamine in particular, Michigan joins Iowa and South Dakota as singling out that drug and its users for special opprobrium in their child abuse statutes. Meanwhile, in Georgia, Idaho, and Ohio, the manufacture or possession of methamphetamine in the presence of a child is a felony, and Washington state provides for enhanced penalties for any conviction for the manufacture of methamphetamine when a child was present.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/methcooking.jpg
controversial school meth cooking demo, Grays Harbor County, Washington, May 2005
Gov. Granholm sang a familiar tune as she announced the signing of the anti-meth package last week. "For the first time, we can now charge those who expose children to the dangers of methamphetamine production with child abuse – because that's what it is," Granholm said. "I'm proud to sign legislation that will help our law enforcement officers better protect children and give our communities additional tools to deal with the environmental damage caused by the production of this illegal drug."

But how big is the problem of meth-exposed children in Michigan? "I can't give you a specific answer as to numbers," said Michigan Department of Human Services Child Protection Services media relations specialist Maureen Sorbet. "We don't track that. We track child abuse cases by the type of abuse and the perpetrators," she told DRCNet.

The Michigan State Police were a bit more informed on the topic. Last year, 116 children were found in meth-related incidents, said Inspector Karen Halliday, who chaired a state meth task force subcommittee charged with dealing with children in homes with drugs present that drafted the meth child abuse law. "If you find one child in an environment like a meth home," that's a problem, she told DRCNet.

But even if every one of those 116 children were the subject of substantiated child abuse complaints, they would constitute less than one-tenth of one percent of substantiated child abuse complaints in the state. According to Child Protection Services, last year more than 128,000 child abuse or neglect complaints were filed last year in Michigan, more than 72,000 were investigated, and more than 18,000 substantiated.

Nationwide, similar results obtain. According to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, child protective services agencies removed 1.19 million children from their parents between 2000 and 2003. During that same period, some 10,580 children were found to be "affected" by meth manufacture, with 2,881 placed in foster care. As the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform notes, "In other words, of all the entries into foster care from 2000 to 2003, at least 99.1% of them had nothing to do with meth labs."

"If the idea is to help children, these kinds of laws are extremely ineffective," said Richard Wexler, head of the coalition and a harsh critic of the nation's child protection services. "If the idea is to drive women underground and leave the children far worse off, it's extremely effective. These laws hurt the children they are allegedly intended to help. Listen, you can't be a meth addict and be a good parent, but further criminalizing them doesn't help anything. The key is to offer treatment. If you simply confiscate the kids, then they wind up in America's dreadful foster care system, bounced from home to home, unable to form lasting bonds with anyone," he told DRCNet.

National Advocates for Pregnant Women generally concentrates on the distinct -- but closely related -- issue of the plight of drug using expectant mothers (12 states and DC charge drug using mothers as child abusers, and 12 more have specific reporting procedures for infants who test positive at birth), but the group is also concerned about the meth as child abuse laws. "This completely misses the boat if we're talking about the public health angle," said Wyndi Anderson, national educator for the group. "We try really hard to get a lot of women access to a whole range of public health services. They need addiction treatment. Automatically labeling them child abusers doesn't help them at all, it only helps get them into prison and their children into foster care," she told DRCNet.

"These laws are an exercise in showboating," said Wexler. "The legislators want to look like they're cracking down on drugs and child abuse, but since it is already child abuse to commit an act that actually harms a child, these laws are redundant. All they do is frighten people away and take away one way to reach out to addicted parents and get the help that will help -- not hurt -- their children."

"When you equate meth use with child abuse, you create the possibility of a witch hunt," Anderson warned. "We want to keep communities healthy and families intact, and these kinds of laws will just bust up both. If you believe in family values, I don't see how you could be for something like this. Is this what conservatives mean when they're talking about compassion, forgiveness, and helping the downtrodden?"

Anderson did not minimize the problem of methamphetamine abuse, but argued that the answer is not more laws but more treatment. "What we should be doing is figuring out what treatment works, what family interventions work, what prevention efforts work. We are willing to spend big money on the criminal justice side, and if we really care about people's and families' health, we should be willing to spend on the public health side. But instead we've been spending on guns and prisons."

But it's more than just a "drug problem," said Anderson. "This is all much more complicated than just drugs or treatment," she said. "We need a comprehensive approach. People need jobs to go to when they get out. It is the community's responsibility to meet these people halfway."

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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