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You Do the Meth

Police raids bust up drug labs. But they also bust up families.

The two burst into tears, ecstatic. "Everything we had done was paying off," says Miranda. It looked like they'd won the battle to keep their family together.

But the fight was just beginning.

Early on October 23, 2002, Moriarty's team was ready to take down a suspected meth lab in Adams County. Just as the SWAT team was preparing to deploy, a detective watching the house got on the radio. Hold off on the SWAT team, he said: "There's a little one who's come on the front porch. He's looking to the left, looking to the right."

Police commander Lori Moriarty is now leading a nationwide effort to help drug-endangered children.
Anthony Camera
Police commander Lori Moriarty is now leading a nationwide effort to help drug-endangered children.
On drug raids, Colorado law-enforcement agencies found not just dangerous chemicals, but children who'd been living in the labs.
On drug raids, Colorado law-enforcement agencies found not just dangerous chemicals, but children who'd been living in the labs.

Moriarty and her team knew about the kid; this was one of the first times they'd called social services before running a raid. They'd been told to expect a five-year-old and a nine-month-old. The detective had apparently spotted the five-year-old on the porch — and what he was doing there was anybody's guess. The boy, wearing a full-length skeleton costume that glowed in the dark in the pre-dawn shadows, went back inside the house, but a few minutes later came out again — looking left and right, left and right.

"We actually thought he was doing countersurveillance," says Moriarty. The next time the boy stepped outside, officers scooped him up and proceeded to raid the house, where they found his mother passed out among lab paraphernalia. As on-scene police officers and social workers prepared to decontaminate, examine and interview the boy, Moriarty sat him down on the lawn. "It's killing me," she said. "What were you doing?"

The boy shrugged. "Today is my Halloween costume party at school," he told her. "I really want to go, but I can't wake my mom up, and I don't know where the school bus stop is. I thought I could just wait and watch for the bus to come by on the street." That's why he was wearing the skeleton suit — though he had nothing on underneath it.

Under the task force's new protocol, the questioning didn't stop there. The boy's nine-month-old sister wasn't in the house, and the detectives knew they needed to find her, too. "When my mom is going to sleep for days, she lets my little sister stay with a friend," the boy told them. The team tracked down the friend and found the baby. Before she and her brother were taken away by social services, the five-year-old offered to illustrate how his mom "makes oil." He couldn't count past seven, but he could draw an accurate meth lab.

"That case really hammered home these kids' need," says Moriarty. And she was doing everything she could to meet that need, expanding drug-endangered-children case-flow models beyond first responders like police officers and social-services personnel, and taking the message to community groups, schools, child counselors and policy-makers. Over the next year, Colorado DEC, with Moriarty as its director, became an official nonprofit, allowing it to receive financial donations as well as donated toys and children's clothes. The organization began working with experts like Jerry Moe, national director of children's programs at the Betty Ford Center, who helped set up a Denver program to teach kids from substance-abusing families about addiction and how to cope with it.

The North Metro Task Force also worked closely with John Martyny, an industrial hygienist at National Jewish Medical and Research Center, who accompanied officers on lab raids and set up controlled experiments to determine possible chemical exposures. Martyny found dangerously high levels of such contaminants as iodine, anhydrous ammonia and hydrogen chloride in the structures, plus methamphetamine on surfaces and clothing in levels up to 10,000 times the recommended safe amounts. He concluded that infants living in these situations might accidentally receive meth doses approaching those found in adult users — a conclusion bolstered by other reports noting that greater than 70 percent of children removed from labs tested positive for meth exposure.

These findings provided more than enough ammunition for Moriarty and others to convince state legislators to make raising a child in a meth lab a Class 3 felony. A year later, in 2005, the legislation was expanded to include those who knowingly brought children into such environments.

Still, something was missing. In 2004, Colorado DEC had hosted the first National Drug Endangered Children conference in Denver, attracting people from across the country, including the director of the Drug Enforcement Administration — but no one was there representing drug rehabilitation treatment or family reunification. "We were law enforcement; we thought treatment was incarceration," says Moriarty. "We thought, there's no way these kids could love their drug-abusing parents." She was traveling around the state and beyond, talking with community groups and judges presiding over child dependency-and-neglect cases. "I was presenting on the horrible impact of methamphetamine on communities," she remembers. "I was one of the advocates to say recovery was not possible. What do you think started happening to termination of parental rights? The levels skyrocketed."

But as Moriarty spoke more with people who were working with drug-endangered children and their parents long after officers had busted down their doors, she learned about the overburdened and spotty foster-care system and realized that relegating drug-endangered children to foster homes wasn't always a great option. She met people like Tonya Wheeler, a meth addict in long-term recovery who's now a certified addictions counselor, the president of the Colorado-based Advocates for Recovery and a mother of two. "For a person who is addicted to the drug who has children, it's not about not loving your kids; it's about the disease of addiction," Wheeler told her. "I loved my children every single day that I was addicted to meth. But the main truth of it is, the disease takes over everything."

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