You Do the Meth

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

The problem goes well beyond the North Metro Task Force, well beyond Colorado. While there seem to be fewer meth labs, there are more users all the time — and meth users' homes aren't much safer than meth labs. Plus, children nationwide are exposed to so many other drugs and drug-making processes — cocaine, heroin, marijuana and Oxycontin. While DEC efforts have sprung up in at least 34 states, there's been so little funding for strategizing that each new recruit to the cause essentially has to start back at square one.

Moriarty isn't giving up. In January, the federally funded National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children opened its headquarters in Boulder, with Moriarty taking a one-year leave of absence from the Thornton police to become its executive director. Her tools used to be assault rifles and hazmat suits; now they're brainstorming sessions and PowerPoint presentations. She's working to institutionalize best practices around the country — like how to determine which drug-endangered families have a shot at rehabilitation and reunification, and which don't. She's hunting up federal dollars to funnel into key medical and scientific research, like that of her colleague Kathryn Wells, who, along with her sister, University of Montana researcher Sandra Wells, is working to track the long-term physical and emotional impact of meth abuse on children.

Moriarty has been accused of becoming too concerned with the well-being of certain kids. The Thornton Police Department just concluded an inquiry into her involvement in the investigation of a Berthoud-area car accident that cost two teens their legs, since Moriarty is distantly related by marriage to one of the victims. Moriarty says her role in the investigation was blown way out of proportion: "It's like going and watching somebody build a house, and they ask you to hold a tape measure, and all of a sudden you've built a house." The Thornton investigators determined that Moriarty didn't break any laws, but in response to the incident, the Colorado State Patrol has drafted a new policy banning officers with any relationship to those involved in a crash from involvement in the case.

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.

But Moriarty's crusade for kids is bigger than her individual virtues and shortcomings. "Colorado is out on the forefront," says Marjean Searcy, coordinator of the Salt Lake Methamphetamine Initiative. "It's opening doors that people have been thinking about for years. Now we have the opportunity to look at the long-term outcomes for these kids."

The ultimate goal is to make the concept of protecting drug-endangered children as commonplace and compulsory for police officers, social workers and everyone else as dealing with domestic violence is today. To guarantee that every town, city, county and state has an ongoing contingent of DEC teams and support systems for kids coming out of drug-related homes. "In twenty years," Moriarty says, "I hope we will look back and say, 'Gosh, cops really didn't work with social services? People really thought meth addicts couldn't recover and get their children back?' It should be a shocking thought that in 2007 we didn't recognize children in drug-endangered environments."

Standing in front of her former drug team, Moriarty flicks on a projector. On the wall behind her flash photos and videos of the children found in meth labs. She tells the detectives what she learned from each of them and says that today she thinks they're all doing great, living safely with family members or in foster homes. She shows an illustration of an ideal case-flow process, a procedure that addresses identifying and assessing at-risk kids and their caregivers, managing their cases, dealing with recidivism and planning for recovery. It's a process that stretches far beyond these cops' personal silos, one that lasts long after they've busted up the meth lab, arrested the parents, handed off the children and gone home for the night.

"You don't have to know about every single piece of this process, but you have to understand yours," she says. "We are not going to arrest our way out of this problem. Reducing recidivism has to have a new meaning for us. We have to look at our roles and responsibilities as not just taking drugs off the streets, but also identifying the next generation who lives in these homes and helping them break the cycle. We talk about the federal government wanting to eliminate drug task forces across the nation because there's no money in the war on drugs. We have to say, 'Hold on. What better form of crime prevention than to intervene in these children's lives and keep them from turning to crime in the future?' Nothing could be truer to the drug war."

Finally, the pitch: "I believe there are more kids we can identify in each of these drug homes. If we put our souls in it, we shouldn't miss any. If we do this right, this will go as a leading example across the nation. I'm here today to ask: Are you up for the challenge? I'm in it for the long haul. Are you?"

The response is immediate: "We're in."


Vince places a small arsenal of cell phones, wireless radios and beepers on the table in front of him as he slides his now hefty figure into a booth at a diner off U.S. 36, just a dozen blocks from where the SWAT team kicked down his door two and a half years ago. Every few minutes, one of the devices beeps or buzzes. "Yeah," he says into the ringing phone's receiver. "What's up?"

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