Meth Or Motherhood

When getting high is more important than feeding your children, foster care system steps in

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Patricia smoked meth the night before she went into labor with her third child.

The newborn tested positive for the drug, and that's when she lost her three children to the foster care system.

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Parents crack under the pressures of life, and their children suffer by living in squalor or worse.

The insanity of addiction ruled Patricia's life.

"Once you get that first hit, you keep chasing it to (repeat) that first high, but you never get it," she said.

She never stopped loving her children, but her addiction was a stronger force.

"I wanted help, but I didn't know where to go," she said.

Karin Kline, CPS public information officer, said parents who lose their children have cracked under the pressure of life circumstances.

FOSTER CARE SERIES

Friday, Nov. 17: The social workers. How do you decide when it's time to take a child away?

Today: The parents. How does it get this bad?

Friday, Dec. 1: The foster families. What kind of person takes in other people's children?

"When children are removed, they come from homes who do love them and are trying to care for them," Kline said.

Foster parents Penni and Arnold Stonebrink have seen just about every type of parental neglect -- drugs, and physical and sexual abuse.

The Stonebrinks are one of the 2,200 licensed foster care homes in Arizona that welcome displaced children.

The couple live on a quiet cul-de-sac in a middle-class residential neighborhood. The kitchen is the soul of their home.

For many of the Stonebrinks' foster charges, this is a place of firsts: The first sit-down breakfast, the first time using eating utensils, and the first hot meal in months.

"They're physically and emotionally starved," Penni Stonebrink said. "It stays with them."

Since 2004, the Stonebrinks have opened their home to 15 children touched by some form of substance abuse.

They've experienced it all -- six siblings who lived in a car; a child corralled in a back yard with a barbed wire fence; a 2-year-old toddler covered with cigarette burns; and a 14-year-old father. Children have come into their homes bruised, sexually abused and abandoned.

"Some of them, you're told beforehand, but others start to act out," Penni Stonebrink said. "As time goes on, they'll open up more."

As foster parents, the Stonebrinks watch these children heal and then leave.

"For me, there is an emotional wall built up," Arnold said. "It's easier for me to deal with."

According to CPS, neglect comprises 60 percent of removal cases. The other 40 percent include sexual, physical and emotional abuse.

"They might say neglect, but you have an overlapping circle that involves drugs," Stonebrink said.

And in most cases, methamphetamine, also known as speed, ice and crystal, is the main culprit.

"Meth is a major issue," said Mary Meyers, CPS unit supervisor. "During the 20 years I've been doing this, I've never seen a drug that has caused so many problems. Meth is just off the charts."

Patricia took pills, drank alcohol and occasionally sniffed meth, but it changed when she and her husband started smoking it.

"Meth is the one that kicked my butt," Patricia said.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, babies born to meth-addicted mothers have tremors and sometimes reject touch as they come off the drug. They are at risk of lead poisoning, physical deformities and future behavioral and emotional problems. Penni Stonebrink said she's fostered several drug-addicted newborns.

"I have been with preemies when they go through withdrawals," she said.

But drug addiction reaches farther than meth. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that 60 percent of women who abused one type of substance consumed another during pregnancy. Twelve to 14 percent of all pregnant women drink during pregnancy.

Penni Stonebrink said many of her foster children suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome. Babies born with FAS tend to have facial malformations, mental retardation and other cognitive challenges.

Meyers said babies aren't tested for drugs or alcohol unless medical personnel suspect it.

"Very few of the mothers will say, ‘I just used,'" Meyers said.

Patricia kept her secret quiet, but during labor, complications tipped off medical personnel.

In Arizona, CPS tries to locate a suitable guardian to monitor the child's safety after a drug test returns positive.

"We're looking for imminent danger to the child," Kline said. "And they'll remove the child if there is."

CPS responded to 413 cases from April 2005 to March 2006. Of the nearly 10,000 children in foster care statewide, CPS reunited 1,800 of those cases with a parent or primary caretaker within a six-month period.

The reunification process involves a comprehensive plan of advocacy.

"A parent has to jump through hoops," Kline said. "It's more than going to classes. They have to successfully complete the recommendations of their case plan."

In many cases, a judge will appoint a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) to represent the child's best interest. Cecille Masters-Webb serves as the area's CASA representative.

"Children in foster care feel they are treated differently or are looked at differently," she said. "Their world is upside down and they haven't done anything wrong. They miss their biological family. They usually have a lot of people looking into their private lives."

Knowledge is prevention, Patricia said. She didn't seek the help of 12-step programs and other support because of fear -- if she admitted her problem, she thought she'd lose her children.

"We don't want women not to come to the hospital because they're afraid of losing their babies," Kline added.

Even if drugs and alcohol are found, Kline said CPS will help the mother keep the baby within the family support network.

Patricia is a success story. Six weeks after her children were removed, Patricia went to treatment. That was six years ago. Today, Patricia is a mother, a wife and the owner of her own business.

"Moms can get help," she said. "They don't have to worry about getting their kids taken away."

If you suspect abuse or neglect, call the CPS hotline at (888) SOS-CHILD. CPS investigates every report. Parents who need substance abuse support, call Alcoholics Anonymous, (928) 474-3620; Narcotics Anonymous, (928) 978-1603; or Community Information Referral (800) 352-3792.

And, Kline said, women who want to abandon their babies have options. The Safe Haven program provides secure, anonymous locations -- either a hospital or fire station -- to drop off your child.

Foster parents interested in attending a support group may contact the Stonebrinks at (928) 468-6903.

See related story:

The foster care crossroads (Nov. 17)

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