WIS Investigates: Most state agencies do not track children removed from drug-infested homes

A WIS investigation discovered that in most cases, neither law enforcement nor social services have been tracking children found in drug labs.

"You see the drama of going into these homes, busting the door down, removing these people," said Candice Lively, attorney at USC Children's Law Center. "You never see the faces of the children. They are the silent victims."

According to the State Law Enforcement Division, 250 children have been rescued from meth labs since July 2011. Seventy-nine of those children were rescued this year. For 2012, DSS reports that 536 children were placed in foster care because of drug abuse by a parent. That number increased 35 percent from 2011 data.

One of those victims was the 14-year-old son of a Lexington County mom, who is a former meth addict. She asked to be identified as Michelle.

"I was using methamphetamines, and he was using marijuana and alcohol," Michelle said.

"And almost everybody around us was using meth," she said. "He had a really hard life I would say. He got taken away from me more than once because of neglect."

Michelle was selling drugs and was working as a professional escort to make money at the time. Her son was one of dozens of children rescued from drug-endangered environments, like meth labs, each year.

"Whenever these children are exposed, whether it's a toddler or a baby crawling across the floor, putting a pacifier in their mouth, they are ingesting those chemicals," Lively said. "And once that happens, if you drug test these kids, you will actually see they have a level of those drugs in their system."

That exposure alone requires first responders to take extreme precautions when removing children from meth-contaminated homes.

"These kids then are going to have to be stripped of their clothes, any comfort items taken from them, and they have to be decontaminated," Lively said. "And that's hard. It's hard for an adult. You have to actually be hosed down."

Even if the drug isn't ingested, it still shows up on a child that's inside a meth environment.

"They are absorbing it through their skin because they are coming in contact with surfaces," said Laura Hudson, of the S.C. Crime Victims Council. "Meth permeates everything in a dwelling. The ceilings, clothing, food products, all these things because it becomes airborne."

Doctors say any amount of exposure to meth poses serious health risks, especially for children.

"You can see lung problems. You can see stomach problems. You can see neurological problems. It can impact most everything," said Dr. Deborah Greenhouse, a pediatrician.

Unfortunately, tracking the long-term effects of meth exposure on children is largely unchartered territory.

"I don't know of a lot of long-term studies looking at what happens to these kids as they become adults," Greenhouse said. "Now some of that is probably meth labs haven't been a really big thing long enough to be able to really easily track a cohort of children into adulthood. And then some of it is because it's a hard group of kids to track."

The WIS investigates team uncovered that no state agency officially tracks children after they are removed from meth homes. The S.C. Department of Social Services could not conclusively tell WIS just how many drug-endangered children have come into the agency's care or if any of them are receiving follow-up medical care.

"We are missing these kids," Lively said.

The future of these children is often determined by their parents' ability to get clean. For Michelle, it happened behind bars.

"I got pregnant with my son, and I couldn't quit using drugs," Michelle said, crying. "I just didn't want to put another child through what I had put my son through. I got on my knees, and I asked for help."

But the road to redemption can be long and trying, as others who have traveled it explain.

"Once you've been condemned for that it's really hard because there is a lot of shame put on you instead of more help being given to you," said Shannon Gleaton, a mother and recovering meth addict.

After finishing a rehab program, Michelle is now three years sober and raising her youngest children. She says she is still close to her oldest son, who is now an adult and has since moved out on his own.

"He doesn't know a whole lot about stability," Michelle said about her son. "And I hope he doesn't carry that into his adult life."

Several state and law enforcement agencies recently updated their protocols for dealing with and tracking drug-endangered children. Those new guidelines also require DSS to provide follow-up medical care for children in these situations for up to a 12-month period.

Currently, the Greenville County Sheriff's Office started a pilot program to come up with the best practices to track children removed from homes with drug labs.

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