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

One more prison inmate to pay for in a critically bloated prison system. Four more kids to support in a critically bloated foster-care system. Research suggests that when Voss would have gotten out, she quickly would have used again. (Why not? What would she have had to live for?) Research also suggests that her children would languish in foster or institutional care, likely ending up in the same life cycle as their mother.

A California study posited that it costs seven times more to imprison a mother and take away her kids than it does to break her of her addiction with long-term residential treatment.

And to be blunt, that cost just spirals over generations. Because drug moms may be really bad mothers, but they are really good at making more babies.

Maggie Voss (with 7-year-old Ryan) went from meth mama to doting real mama after supervised treatment.
Peter Scanlon
Maggie Voss (with 7-year-old Ryan) went from meth mama to doting real mama after supervised treatment.
Phoenix PD Detective Tim Ahumada hopes his busts are part of rebuilding healthy families.
Peter Scanlon
Phoenix PD Detective Tim Ahumada hopes his busts are part of rebuilding healthy families.

This, then, is a cycle begat by strictly punitive measures based on politics and bad science.

"People like me are really tough for a community," Voss admits. "Hell, they had every right to throw me in prison and take away my kids. I was a disaster.

"But I was incredibly lucky to be given a real shot at recovery and redemption. That's rare here, trust me. But the payoff is huge. There are thousands more out there like me. What's the potential savings there?

"For me, what was saved was my life. For my kids, their mother and their home were saved."

According to the Arizona Attorney General's Office, 362 Arizona children have been "rescued from meth labs" in the past four years.

Of the meth-lab busts in Arizona since 2000, children were present in about a third of the cases.

Since 2000, 218 children have been taken into temporary custody by Child Protective Services at the scenes of meth-related busts.

To be sure, there are real horror stories.

Earlier this year, the Phoenix Police Department busted a house with a meth lab in which the air was so toxic it took six hours of airing the place out to make it safe enough for investigators to enter without oxygen tanks. Living in the house was an 18-month-old baby, who now lives with relatives in another state.

Last year, Phoenix police had trouble entering a meth-lab home because a mountain of trash blocked the door. Inside, they found seven years' worth of garbage. The home had no electricity or water; the owner was stealing water from a neighbor's garden hose.

Two children lived in the house. Their father had set up a mattress in front of the television set in the living room. The kids slept and ate and spent their days on that mattress. They only left the mattress to urinate in bottles and defecate in buckets that were strewn throughout the house.

Since 2000, two children have died in the Valley from ingesting waste from the meth labs their parents operated.

Nobody is saying mixing methamphetamine and children isn't a degrading, dangerous and sometimes lethal combination.

What is wrong, many drug-addiction researchers and treatment experts say, is that police, prosecutors and political leaders often use horror stories to make sweeping arguments that parents must be dealt with punitively, which lands their kids in foster care.

Attorney General Terry Goddard, in the "Methamphetamine Fact Sheet" on his office's Web site, lists "facts" that many researchers argue are not facts at all.

For example, the AG states: "Prenatal exposure to meth causes infants to be six times more likely to be born with birth defects such as spina bifida, club foot, intestinal abnormalities and skeletal abnormalities."

Also: "Children found in meth labs often suffer from developmental delays and have likely been abused or neglected."

That line is followed with: "Justice Department statistics show that neglected or abused children are 50 percent more likely to be arrested as juveniles, 40 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime as adults and 33 percent more likely to be substance abusers."

Ergo, meth-exposed kids can end up as drug-addicted criminals who resemble the Elephant Man.

"That stuff about the children being more likely to have defects is just absolutely not true," Dr. Barry Lester, probably the nation's leading researcher on the effects of meth and crack cocaine on children, tells New Times. "That statement comes from some early, early research done on animals. Nothing in any human tests shows anything like that."

And the attorney general's other claims?

"There are no published studies of children in meth-lab homes," he says. "The jump from meth to general research on abuse and neglect? None of that is valid.

"It's just like what we saw in the 1980s with crack cocaine," he says. "It's not science. It's politics."

Lester, the director of Brown University's Center for the Study of Children at Risk, who heads a massive National Institute of Health study on drug-addicted parents and children, knows the science better than anyone.

In the course of his research, though, he's also had to learn the politics of addiction, of which there are two basic camps.

The liberal persuasion looks at drug use as a public-health problem requiring compassion and understanding. From this perspective, he says, drug use during pregnancy, or in the presence of young children, must be treated in the same manner as depression or mental illness.

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