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.
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.
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.
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.