Ice, Ice, Baby

Arizona moms are abusing meth more than any other drug. Want to get them clean, save the family and save tax dollars? Try dangling their kids as the carrot

Maggie Voss cried as her 7-year-old son, Ryan, received a Student of the Month award from his school's principal recently. The weeping was a little weird, but the other parents didn't seem to notice. Some suburban moms tend to overreact to their babies' accomplishments. That's a given. It's better than the alternative.

The reason Maggie Voss was crying, though, was precisely because she used to be the alternative; the scourge, the blight, the problem, the drain on our resources, the decay of our society.

Think crank whore, and Voss was it.

A pistol-packin', trash-mouthed meth mama who kept getting knocked up by the next guy who knocked her around. Three dads, four kids, even more felonies. (See "Meth and Sex" about the relationship between meth addiction and sex addiction.) In most people's eyes, she was hopeless, irredeemable, evil.

And that kid up at the podium? He's a "meth baby," the modern equivalent of the dreaded "crack baby," born to a meth-addicted mother, stigmatized by our culture at birth as messed up, hopeless, sure to be a lifelong drain on the public coffers.

But the truth is, Maggie and Ryan are living proof that methamphetamine addiction can be overcome. They also prove that meth-addicted moms can be good moms again, that kids are more resilient than we think, and that kids, in general, are better off with mom than with a foster mom.

And much better off with mom than with an institution acting as mom.

Right now, though, some Arizona policymakers are working in the opposite direction. Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas is working with legislators to craft a bill to give mandatory minimums and lengthen prison time for mothers who use meth while pregnant. Governor Janet Napolitano's well-meaning and often successful "Protect Children First" mandate to Child Protective Services workers is succeeding at getting children out of dangerous situations, but doing far less to help remove the drug problem from the home torn apart by drugs.

Essentially, the program Napolitano started as attorney general in 1999, the Arizona Drug Endangered Children program, has done well at getting drug-abusing parents and their children into the system. It's just not doing a very good job of getting them out.

At the same time, the state Attorney General's Office, as well as certain Valley governments, including Phoenix's, are releasing sometimes erroneous and sensationalized information regarding the effects of methamphetamine on the children of meth-addicted mothers or meth households. It is, many health officials say, a replay of the "crack-baby scare," the politically motivated, short-on-science hysteria of the late 1980s and early 1990s that damaged the lives of children much more than the crack cocaine ingested by their mothers.

The stakes of bad meth policy are extremely high for Arizona.

According to a February 2005 report, methamphetamine is the most common drug abused by individuals entering the Arizona Families F.I.R.S.T. program, the five-year-old state-run program for substance-abusing families entering the child welfare system.

Of the 1,763 individuals referred to the program, 40 percent reported methamphetamine use, beating out pot (26 percent), cocaine (13 percent), and even alcohol (32 percent) for the most-abused drug.

These are stunning numbers that suggest methamphetamine is hitting Arizona like no other state in the country.

Consider these national statistics: According to a report by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, meth was the drug of choice for 7 percent of those who sought treatment, while alcohol abusers made up 42 percent, marijuana users 16 percent, and cocaine abusers 14 percent.

The problem, experts say: Only 10 percent of those parents with drug problems in Arizona were given residential drug treatment. And of those, fewer than 1 percent received residential drug treatment in which they had full access to their children.

In the case of methamphetamine -- arguably the toughest addition to kick -- research shows that mothers placed in long-term residential treatment along with their young child or children have the highest rate of recovery.

Under intense and often yearlong supervision, often with the threat of serious prison time hanging over them, mothers learn to be, and learn to take pride in being, sober and responsible parents again.

Look at Maggie Voss.

Voss is clean, seven years now. She owns her home, has a good job, has all four kids living with her. The kids are successful. And from all appearances, they're happy as hell and getting along great.

Voss got clean in a Salvation Army long-term residential care facility, where her children could be with her during treatment. The treatment center has since been shut down for lack of funds.

Voss went through what national experts say is the rehabilitation protocol most likely to be successful.

Right now, there is only one such program operating in the Valley of the Sun for indigent meth-addicted mothers, with a total of 24 beds.

One Phoenix Rescue Mission official estimated that those 24 beds are all that exists for an estimated 10,000 Arizona women with children who could benefit from such a program.

Under current policies, and even under proposed new ones, Voss likely would have gone to prison for years, and her ties with her children would have been severed.

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