In 20 years as a substance-abuse counselor at Wichita Children’s Home, Pamela McLucas has seen the effects of parents’ drug and alcohol abuse on children.
McLucas has held babies born addicted to drugs who startled easily. She has talked to small children who noticeably withdrew.
She has kept her own statistics. By her informal count, 87 percent of the time that children ended up at the Children’s Home, it was related to substance abuse.
So McLucas isn’t surprised that, according to the state child protection agency, parental substance abuse is one of the top reasons for children being removed from homes.
Substance abuse is cited as the main reason in about one in five removals, according to the latest data from the Kansas Department for Children and Families. That ratio has remained steady over the past four fiscal years, and the numbers have steadily increased.
Eight months into the current fiscal year, the main reason 19 percent of the children were removed from their homes was because of substance abuse. That 19 percent includes parental drug abuse, 11 percent; child drug abuse, 1 percent; and methamphetamine use by parents, 7 percent.
In DCF’s Wichita region, meth use accounted for 34 removals between July 1 and March 31. Statewide, the total number of meth removals was 186.
The drug brings an extreme high, and it’s powerfully addictive and relatively cheap. DCF created a separate category to track meth-use removals after “meth use exploded nationally and became a hot topic,” said DCF spokeswoman Theresa Freed.
Physical abuse and physical neglect each accounted for 14 percent of the removals, the figures show. In many of those cases of abuse and neglect, substance abuse was a contributing factor, Freed said.
About 10 years ago, Sedgwick County sheriff’s Maj. Mike Oliver responded to a home where he saw feces smeared on a wall. Deputies took small children from the home into protective custody.
As Oliver remembers it, there wasn’t clear proof that substance abuse was the direct cause of the neglect and filth.
“I couldn’t prove it, but that’s what my gut was telling me,” Oliver said.
For parents who abuse substances, he said, “They get up in the morning, and they’re looking for their drugs. They’re not looking for breakfast food for the children.”
In the case of the children in the putrid home, he said, “I think mom got them back” after intervention from the state.
Authorities say there must be a balance between protecting children – sometimes by removing them from their homes at least temporarily – and helping parents deal with their problems so they can care for their children.
McLucas, the counselor at the Children’s Home, says it’s important to remember that parents can be part of the solution.
“I don’t want to be down on parents,” she said. “There is hope for parents” who work to stay sober. They don’t have to be perfect but need to make progress, she said.
For many of the parents, losing their children becomes a turning point, she said. It can be “horrific for them to look at what they did to their kids.”
There are success stories, and there are devastating cases.
One of the bad ones is playing out in El Dorado.
According to a lawsuit against the DCF and according to an autopsy report, 18-month-old Jayla Haag was born testing positive for meth and died testing positive for meth after she was brought to a hospital with fatal head injuries in March 2012. The autopsy showed she also was suffering from malnutrition and was missing six teeth that somehow had been forcibly detached from her lower gum.
According to evidence, adults had been smoking meth in the small duplex where she lived around the time she suffered the fatal injuries. Her mother is in prison for involuntary manslaughter. Her mother’s boyfriend could still face charges, a prosecutor says.
Ron Paschal, a Sedgwick County deputy district attorney, said parents in the grip of substance abuse may not realize they are neglecting their children. With their judgment impaired, they can start physically abusing their children. They can drive their children while intoxicated.
The children of substance-abusing parents can suffer in another profound way, said Sandy Lessor, an assistant district attorney who works with Paschal in pursuing child-in-need-of-care cases. Substance abuse blocks what should be a powerful bond between parent and child, Lessor said. The children don’t get the eye contact and nurturing touches that help them to develop.
Babies who test positive for meth exposure, for example, can be difficult to soothe. And, Lessor said, the tension builds when you couple an agitated child with an agitated parent.
Paschal calls it the “perfect storm.”
Beth Heflin, a pediatrician who is part of a team of doctors who respond to child abuse cases that show up at Wichita hospitals, said, “It’s hard enough being a parent when you have all of your faculties about you. And when you add on top of being a parent wanting something else more than wanting to take care of your kids, it’s a recipe for disaster.
“We all know what drunk people look like. Imagine what it’s like for a drunk person around a screaming baby.”
She’s dealt with children born suffering from withdrawal because of a mother’s drug use while pregnant. Newborns “can undergo all the difficulties of withdrawal from that drug that mom would undergo if she went cold turkey,” Heflin said.
Withdrawal symptoms can take time to appear after birth, so the standard of care for newborns whose mothers have a history of drug use during the pregnancy is to watch the babies for five days in the hospital after birth, she said.
Often, mothers might not remember how much drugs or alcohol they consumed while pregnant because they were so high or intoxicated, she said.
Heflin, a board member with the Kansas Alliance for Drug Endangered Children, has seen many cases of children exposed to drugs, including a 2-year-old who apparently ingested meth while crawling. The child came into a hospital suffering seizures. Fortunately, once the drug wore off, so did the seizures.
Fight or flight
McLucas, the counselor at the Children’s Home, now works with teens and younger adults. In past years, her job has involved working with younger children and teens in protective custody to determine whether they are using drugs or whether part of the reason they were removed from their homes was because of substance abuse by their parents.
These are the kids whose parent might drink a fifth of whiskey in a night, mixed with illegal drugs. Maybe the only touch the children get is an abusive one, so their first reflex is to pull back if you reach out to them, she said. They’re cautious.
“Some kids even ask, ‘I’ve been trying to figure out why you like me.’ ”
They say such things because they’ve learned not to trust. They often don’t like to talk.
Their feelings are overwhelming, so they stifle them to keep from falling apart emotionally. Their brains have been so overloaded with trauma, they are in a fight-or-flight mode, on alert, on guard.
“It’s like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) for a soldier,” McLucas said.
“That’s how children are in their own homes. And that’s sad.”
Often, the parent tells the child that he or she is the reason the parent drinks too much or uses drugs. McLucas has told the children it’s not their fault, to remember the three C’s: You didn’t cause it. You can’t control it. You can’t cure it.
After two decades of listening and watching, McLucas said, “I think I’ve heard it or seen it (all), and I still get surprised.”
What kind of substance-abuse trend is she seeing now? “It’s prescription drugs.”
Parents often mix a prescription drug with alcohol, which makes the effects worse.
“You’re going to overdose and die eventually,” she said.
She has seen the aftermath of the situation in which the parent is “passed out somewhere and the 2-year-old is running around with matches.”
She has seen a 5- or 6-year-old who is taking care of an infant sibling. “They’re parentified. They’re the caregivers.”