The woman has been off methamphetamine for four months now. She is literally pregnant with motivation.
The 26-year-old, in recovery at a Wichita residential treatment center, expects to give birth to a son soon. In the struggle against one of the most destructive drugs, she is winning so far, a day at a time. Four months is the longest she has stayed sober while in recovery. It gives her hope, after the drug caused her to give up two other children.
She is part of a wave of Kansas parents whose meth use has led to their children being removed or voluntarily turned over to others. In Wichita and across the state, an increasing number of children have been removed because of parents’ meth use, records show.
Meth is an illegal and highly addictive chemical cocktail that gives people such euphoria that users keep pursuing the high even as the drug rots their teeth and gums, ages their faces and damages their brains. Their children suffer because their addiction causes them to cease even the most basic parenting. Meth, which is relatively inexpensive and accessible, is sometimes called “the poor man’s cocaine.” Most meth is smuggled from Mexico, authorities say.
The recovering woman wants to keep this child and nurture him. This might be her best chance to be a meth-free mother. Godparents have been raising her two other children because of her addiction. She gave up temporary custody after her 18-month-old son licked meth residue off a spoon she used to shoot the drug into her arms. He became ill, then recovered.
“That was my realization that I can’t put him through this anymore,” she said.
In the 10-county Wichita region, there has been an increase in recent years in the number of children removed for the primary reason of parents’ meth use, according to data kept by the Kansas Department for Children and Families. Through the first eight months of the current fiscal year, the number of removals is 34 and on pace to end up at around 50.
Statewide, in the last full fiscal year, 252 children were removed, compared with 111 four years earlier, when the main reason was parental meth use, DCF records show. The number is down so far this current fiscal year, in part because of a different method for counting primary reasons for removal, said DCF spokeswoman Theresa Freed.
In about one-fifth of the cases statewide last year, parental substance abuse, including meth, was the primary reason children were removed from homes. Substance abuse was a secondary reason in another one-fifth of the cases statewide, DCF records show.
There also is anecdotal evidence of increased meth use. In Johnson County, it is not unusual for three out of four parents to test positive for meth after coming to court for hearings a few days after their children are taken into protective custody, said Don Hymer, an assistant district attorney who heads the office’s juvenile division.
“So they’re so hooked they can’t stop even though they know in a couple days” they are due in court and face testing, Hymer said.
Impact on children
Meth’s impact on children played out recently at a south Wichita home, where police said they took four children into protective custody after they tested positive for the drug. The mother of the children, who range in age from 2 to 12, said she doesn’t use meth around her children or let others do so. DCF doesn’t track how many children test positive for meth.
In Wichita, child abuse pediatrician Kerri Weeks said she has seen a significant increase in the past two years in child abuse related to parental meth use.
“These children have been physically abused and severely neglected,” Weeks said in an e-mail. “Many of the children have developmental delays and behavioral problems.” Several children have been treated in an intensive care unit for meth intoxication or ingestion, she said.
Children can get exposed to meth by touching it or inhaling the secondhand smoke, experts say.
Kids can be vulnerable even if the parent doesn’t use meth in front of them, Weeks said. The granular or powdery residue gets on counter tops, tables, carpets, bedding and curtains and “can be absorbed through the child’s skin as they crawl and cruise around the home, or even cuddle a stuffed animal,” she said.
‘Walking on eggshells’
At Wichita Children’s Home, Erin Teeter deals directly with younger children who have been removed from their homes after being affected by meth. Babies born addicted to meth often have tremors, said Teeter, foster care director at the Children’s Home. They act hyperactive, irritable. “Trying to comfort a baby who is over stimulated by your touch is very difficult,” Teeter said.
In meth homes, the person who should be loving often succumbs to paranoia brought on by the drug. The adults flip from one mood to another and lash out, Teeter said.
“That’s a home that’s very dangerous to live in because you’re walking on eggshells,” she said. It’s almost as if children are lucky if the worst is neglect rather than beatings, she said.
Prosecutors and health officials say that where there is meth, there is crime and abuse. In 2012, 18-month-old Jayla Haag was living with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend at an El Dorado apartment that has been described as a meth house. Evidence showed that the little girl died from a brutal beating, that some of her teeth were forcibly removed. She tested positive for meth. The boyfriend and mother were convicted in her death.
Parents can become so focused on their drug that they can’t do basic supervision, provide meals or make sure their children get to school, said Sandra Lessor, an assistant district attorney in Sedgwick County who handles child-in-need-of-care cases.
Facing her childhood
In the recovery world, addicts are supposed to take what is known as a “fearless moral inventory” of themselves: to be brutally honest about who they are and what they have done.
The 26-year-old pregnant meth addict says she grew up being exposed to the drug.
She is a resident at Women’s Recovery Center of Central Kansas, a nonprofit drug and alcohol treatment provider near Seneca and Harry. Of 71 clients served by the center last year, the biggest number by far – 40 – said meth was their substance of choice, said program coordinator Rachal Harper.
Sitting at a table with a reporter on Thursday, the woman methodically described her childhood.
When she was 11, she was gang-raped. When she was 12, she got high on meth for the first time.
She took care in the words she used, sometimes pausing, painstakingly describing what happened and how it affected her.
She summed it up in two words: “meth chaos.”
She recounted how, when she was 12, she took a bag of meth powder from her mother’s partner, causing him to point a gun at her mother and accuse her of stealing his dope. Later, the girl handed her mother the stolen powder.
The girl’s motive for stealing was simple: “I was hungry.”
The powder brought $180; her mother gave her $30 of it and used the rest to get the cable turned back on and buy “lots of mac and cheese.” Her mother seemed proud that she had been an enterprising thief.
Over the years, the girl who grew into a woman smoked and snorted meth. Eventually, she started shooting the drug into her veins.
She spent $8,000 on meth in two months. She shot so much meth that she lost 150 pounds, down from 243. She continued to waste away, to 83 pounds. “You could just pick my skin up, and you could probably rip it,” she said. The emaciated result left her looking 10 years older.
She looks in the mirror now and sees a healthy young woman.
Her meth use wasn’t constant. She used it in “sprees,” at times leaning on alcohol. She jumped back hard onto meth after a devastating disappointment, when she came close to getting her associate degree but failed. She had wanted to be an occupational therapist. With her dream smashed, she felt she couldn’t cope without meth.
Her medical training made her adept at using a syringe to inject meth into her arms. IV use was different, she said, describing it as “like you’re floating. You have no care in the world.”
Now after four months of sobriety, she is determined. “I don’t want to be homeless again,” she said, tapping the table for emphasis. “I don’t want to have to sleep with someone just to get high.”
There was a time when her skill with a syringe drew users to her. They wanted her to shoot them up. Once, a man aimed a small black pistol at her and ordered her to plunge the needle into him. She purposely missed his vein and told him to pull the trigger, because she had already given up her children and didn’t care what happened.
Her arms still bear scars where she put the needle to herself over and over. She wears long sleeves, even in hot weather, to cover the marks.
She is on probation for meth possession. She knows her determination to stay sober can’t end with the birth of her son. So she has learned to manage her craving for meth, to control the “triggers” that make her want to use. One trigger: her mother.
Her recovery has brought her to a new place: “I actually am going to raise a child on my own with no man involved, which is actually a first for me. I’ve come to realize that I’m co-dependent.”
She has decided not to feel sorry for herself. “You know what? People get raped every day,” she said. “It’s time to move on, let go.”
In her new life, she walks to her job because she doesn’t have a working car.
Part of her moral inventory involves being honest about her past attempts at motherhood. Her decision to let her other children go to their godparents was the “most selfless thing I’ve done in my addiction,” she said, because she couldn’t care for them at the time. Now they are nurtured.
When she had her other children and was using, her drive for meth was so strong, she would put them in the living room with snacks and turn on the TV, then lock herself in the bathroom and shoot up.
Her baby is due April 25. She’s on maternity leave, still living at the recovery center and arranging housing for herself and her son.
“Honestly, I’m afraid to leave” the center, she said. “They’re my support system.”
Because of the meth conviction, she is a felon, and that will likely keep her from an occupational therapy or a medical career, she said.
There will be time to plan the rest of her life. “Right now,” she said, “it’s just baby steps.
“Focus on today and the baby.”