Towns pitch in to save 'meth orphans' of Appalachia
As drug busts rise, locals build foster homes and donate toys to help children left behind after arrests
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But children are also playing a part in stopping the scourge: A recent case in Tennessee involved a 14-year-old girl who informed on her parents after they kept telling her younger brother they were going to stop manufacturing meth and never did.Skip to next paragraph
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For police, it's sometimes hard to tell the innocent from the lawless: In Myrtle Beach the week before Christmas, police arrested a man and a wife and their two teenage boys after discovering a meth lab in their motel room.
For the most part, though, children are being caught in the middle. In Tennessee some 500 children have been placed in foster care in just the past few years because their parents were arrested for making methamphetamine.
"Our system is overwhelmed right now," says Russ Dedrick, the US attorney in Knoxville, Tenn.
As a result, officials are taking greater care in trying to protect the children being caught in this netherworld of "crystal" and "crank." In some cases, the approach is to discourage the parents from involving them at all. Missouri, for example, now makes it possible to be sentenced to life in prison for cooking meth in front of a child.
But those laws have yet to make it into the hidden crags of Appalachia, where there's still a deep distrust of - and solidarity against - outside authorities. Thus local officials are developing other procedures to help the young, such as involving social workers early in the process and decontaminating children at the scene of raids.
Boone has changed the name of a local meth task force to the "Drug-Endangered Children's Program." A dozen other mountain counties have sent representatives to the town to learn its methods. A conference in Tennessee in early December brought 300 deputies and social workers for a first-of-its-kind conference on the meth pandemic.
On a recent Friday, dozens of families came to the Social Services building in Watauga County, N.C., to donate toys and clothes for the dispossessed children. More dramatically, Cumberland County, Tenn., recently bought an old church and turned it into a foster group home mainly for "meth orphans."
"Everytime we've needed something, it's just shown up," says Butch Burgess, the county sheriff.
Mr. Burgess himself is an example of how people are pitching in. Last year he took in a foster boy from a drug-addled family - one of 31 foster kids he's cared for in the past 11 years, many of them meth orphans.
"He was three years old and 22 pounds when we got him and now he weighs 40-something," says Mr. Burgess. "The first four days he didn't speak at all, but last night at the Christmas service at the church, he led the closing prayer for 10 minutes. We couldn't understand half of what he was saying, but there wasn't a dry eye in the church when he finished. It just tells me that if we can break the cycle with these kids, we've done something positive."
All the attention is yielding results. "What we're finding is that more people are [cooking meth] away from their homes and their kids," says Roslyn Thompson, a supervisor at Watauga County Social Services.