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
Meat Camp, N.C. - It is a disturbing scene that plays out all too often across the hog hollows of Appalachia. Authorities raid illicit meth labs set up in rickety trailers and mountain shacks: Using hoses, scrubs, and soap, they decontaminate children on the spot and throw away tainted blankets and teddy bears.Skip to next paragraph
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The loss of personal items may seem like a small price for the crimes of their parents, but for many experts, it symbolizes the plight of the region's growing ranks of "meth orphans:" losing their childhoods to what's called the "scourge of the mountains."
Now, however, a growing number of communities across Appalachia - where methamphetamine use has become a virtual pandemic - are finding ways to care for the hundreds of children separated each year from their parents as a result of drug busts.
In some towns, residents are building group homes and taking in the children. In other areas, business people and Brownie troops are donating clothes and toys to replace at least some of the contaminated belongings that have been discarded. And in places where as many as 60 percent of meth lab busts involve children, authorities are now changing their tactics to take into account the welfare of broken families when making arrests.
"It's become a rescue mission," says Betty Dotson-Lewis, a historian in Somersville, W.Va. "Our communities are having to assume the responsibility to save these children."
The task is a large one. The underworld of meth labs, in which people combine or "cook" household chemicals with readily available over-the-counter drugs to produce powerful stimulants, has become a significant problem nationwide. But is particularly entrenched here in the mountains of Appalachia.
Up Meat Camp Road in this steep valley just outside Boone, N.C., for instance, black-painted pickup trucks and broken-down shacks are the outward manifestations of a hollow where "there's six labs cooking right now," says Harry Ray, a car mechanic who's lived in the valley most of his life.
In and around the valley where Indians once hunted buffalo to trade the meat at the camp up on Snake Mountain Gap, officials have noted one of the greatest concentrations of meth labs in the country. As the meth trade moved West from California and through the heartland over the past 30 years, experts say it's found a home in the region where the Feds and moonshiners once battled it out over another illicit enterprise.
Indeed, officials say a 400 percent rise in meth arrests in Boone alone in the past two years only hints at the scope of a problem that may now be worse than the days of the stills.
And it's children who are increasingly getting wrapped up in the lawless culture - both as participants and innocent bystanders.
Here in North Carolina's Watauga County, for instance, one elementary schoolboy recently recited to his class in detail the recipe to cook meth, to the astonishment of his teacher. In another local case, a boy was working for his parents, removing striker strips from the sides of matchbooks to distill a key ingredient (red phosphorus) used in making the home-brewed drug.
Often, small children are found playing on the floor, where the dangerous fumes congregate. On Dec. 15, investigators in White County, Tenn., found a stash of ingredients under an 11-year-old's mattress - in an area where 80 kids were put into foster care last year.