By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
Someone was at the front door. Miranda's two-year-old daughter rushed toward it, figuring that her father was home. But then the door burst open, narrowly missing her, and the toddler saw that it wasn't Daddy after all.
It was a SWAT team.
Armor-clad police officers stormed inside, weapons drawn. They pushed a shocked Miranda to the floor and fastened her hands behind her back with zip ties. While her three children — her daughter and five- and nine-year-old sons — sat beside her, the SWAT team quickly scouted the rest of the two-bedroom basement apartment. After that, narcotics operatives from the North Metro Task Force took over, led by Detective Rob Lopez. He'd received a tip several months earlier that folks had been scoring methamphetamine from this residence, located in a shabby stretch of low-lying apartments near U.S. 36 and Federal Boulevard in Westminster. He'd sent a wired informant there to buy meth — once from Miranda and once from her husband, Vince. Each time, there were children at home.
Combing through the apartment on this evening in December 2004, Lopez and his colleagues found half a gram of meth in a vitamin bottle and a fifth of a gram in a plastic baggie. In a sealed box in a closet, they discovered meth pipes and other drug paraphernalia, plus digital scales and various plastic baggies presumably used to sell meth; elsewhere, they found two stashes of marijuana.
The detectives asked about Vince, and the oldest boy said that his father was at the apartment building next door. They found him there, along with 26 grams of meth in a throat-lozenge container.
As the three children were handed off to representatives of the Adams County Social Services Department, Lopez read Miranda her rights, which she waived. Flustered and defensive, she admitted that she and Vince sold meth out of their home four to five times a day, making $20 to $50 per deal. She smoked meth, too, she said. Lopez asked if she realized what she was doing to herself, to her family. There was more to life than this — didn't she see that? But it was impossible to know if any of that got through.
Lopez then talked to Vince, who was scruffy and skinny, with a goatee; Lopez was scruffy and built, with his long hair in a ponytail. Under different circumstances, in a different life, the two wouldn't have looked out of place sitting down together for a beer. But now Vince said he sold meth to supplement his income — and used it himself. He was already on probation for a previous misdemeanor drug charge, so he was probably facing jail time. Vince seemed resigned to his fate, maybe ready to turn things around, but Lopez didn't buy it. "When you have them at the jail, they're willing to give up the world," he says. "In this instance, I just thought it was more of the same."
As a narc, it was Lopez's job to find the drugs and bust the perps. He wasn't operating a daycare center. The three kids might go to friends or relatives, but who knew if those new caretakers would be addicts? Or they could stay in the social-services system and bounce from one foster home to the next. Either way, they were just collateral damage in the drug war.
"So I dumped Vince off in jail and turned around and went home," Lopez remembers. "And that's usually where it ends."
Lori Moriarty will never forget the moment she realized that her North Metro Task Force team was doing something terribly wrong. She has the instant on film.
The jittery hand-held camera tracks the suited-up and helmeted officers as they pour out of the unmarked police van into the spring sunlight and swarm a suburban house in Thornton. "Police! Search warrant!" they holler through their respirators as they use a battering ram to knock the front door off its hinges. Suspects are pushed flat to the carpeted floor, then carried out of the house as the camera follows officers upstairs. There's a glimpse of a cop pointing a rifle at a man on a bedroom floor. In another bedroom, an emaciated woman sits near a bare mattress and a pile of clothes, looking up fearfully at the officer standing over her. The officer is pointing to something on the ground next to her, just out of sight. The camera comes closer, and what he's pointing at becomes clear: a baby.
Moriarty had the task force tape this April 2002 meth-lab bust to record the first time her SWAT team wore respirators on a raid. She had no idea they would also record their discovery of a fourteen-month-old boy. Watching a respirator-clad officer carry the almost-naked baby out of a house where meth was kept in a toy box and unfinished product hidden in baby bottles hit Moriarty like a ton of bricks. "That was the awakening moment for me," she says. "We had a guy in a self-contained breathing apparatus and a child in a diaper. The baby was in there 24/7, wearing nothing, and we were in there seven minutes and wearing protective outfits. This was abuse."
Moriarty was used to such tough situations; she'd staked her career on them. She grew up in Adams County vowing never to work with the pain and abuse her Westminster-cop father dealt with every day, only to step into his shoes and put on a Thornton police badge in 1987. As a detective, she cracked ten-year-old cold cases, drive-by shootings and high-profile murder-kidnappings, and skyrocketed to commander in seven years. "She rose pretty rapidly through the ranks because of her capabilities," says Thornton police chief Jim Nursey. "She had people skills, communication skills, sincerity and a passion for the job."
In 2000, those capabilities led to Moriarty becoming head of the North Metro Task Force, an alliance of drug detectives from Adams and Broomfield counties. It was a daunting assignment: She'd never been an undercover or drug cop, and now she was commanding a male-dominated team of longtime undercover narcs engaged in one of the highest-risk areas of law enforcement — and the stakes were about to get higher. In 1998, police had busted 31 methamphetamine labs in Colorado; in 2001, the number of busts reached 455, with 73 of those by the North Metro Task Force alone. Meth cases were overwhelming police departments and inundating the courts. The West Coast meth problem had hit Colorado, and Moriarty's team was at the center of it all. "It went bonkers," says former Westminster police chief Dan Montgomery. "The advent of the methamphetamine labs created a whole new dimension in the North Metro Task Force."
Moriarty was up for the challenge. As the head of an undercover task force, she took the unprecedented step of spreading the word about her unit. "We are trying to benefit the community and make them feel safe," she notes, "but if no one knows how we are doing that, how do they feel safe?" With her statuesque presence, silver hair and intense blue eyes, she was a natural for the media. She told her officers that there'd be no more eating Wendy's hamburgers or nonchalantly wearing respirators on their heads like yarmulkes while sifting through noxious meth labs. Although everyone else seemed to think a gun was the only equipment drug detectives needed, her task force was the first in the state to learn, as a unit, about hazmat suits. To handle the mounting number of meth labs, she designed new investigative protocols and coordinated with local fire departments and hazmat teams to drop the typical length of a meth raid from sixteen hours to ten, then to four.
But this baby — he was an unknown quantity. "Child abuse? That had nothing to do with undercover drug investigations," Moriarty says now. "In fifty years, there had never been a drug investigation that identified children as victims." Several months earlier, her team had found an eight-year-old at a meth lab, and after arresting his entire family, Moriarty didn't give it a second thought when a woman driving by said she knew the boy and would take him — even though Moriarty had worked on many child-abuse investigations. But now, looking at the baby, she realized what she'd overlooked — and what her counterparts were overlooking in drug-endangered homes everywhere.
"How many times had we gone to a house where there were toys and cribs and children's clothes, and we would arrest everyone and never even ask about the kids?" she says. "What about the times we would set up a drug deal and have someone meet us somewhere and bust them for a kilo of cocaine? How did we know they didn't leave children back at their house?" The meth epidemic brought the problem into focus for Moriarty. Never before had drug-lab dangers been so obvious; never before had there been such an equal-opportunity narcotic affecting as many mothers as fathers. But kids were equally at risk at cocaine dens and marijuana farms, Moriarty realized, where there might be fewer fumes but just as much potential for neglect, abuse and filth. That year, the National Clandestine Lab Database reported that of the 8,911 narcotics labs seized nationwide, 2,078 involved children. And those were just the kids lucky enough to get noticed.
"For decades, we had missed opportunities to do interventions for these children," says Moriarty. "Unless it was a slap-in-the-face case of child abuse, we'd missed it."
She wasn't going to miss it anymore.
Vince can't remember the first time he smoked meth. "It was just one of those things that kind of happened," he says, probably sometime in 1999. "I was in a bar with my uncle, and the next thing I know, I was getting high. Smoking it. I thought it was cool, I guess. I saw all the attention other folks were getting because of it, and I wanted a piece of the pie."
Before that, he'd been anti-drug — no pot, no cocaine, no nothing — his entire 22-year-old life. He'd stayed clean through a childhood spent in and out of foster homes in Arvada and Lakewood. The varsity football player also avoided the narcotics trap when he dropped out of Jefferson High School a few credits short of graduation, and when Miranda, his blond-haired, blue-eyed high-school sweetheart, got pregnant with their first child and dropped out, too. Living together in one family member's house or another, the two soberly made ends meet thanks to Vince's jobs in mailrooms and tire shops.
"And then, all of a sudden, here I was smoking speed," he remembers. "I just ran with it. I took it to the next level. I've been like that my whole life; it's all or nothing." And now he wanted it all: the meth, the lifestyle, the money he could make selling it. Soon he was addicted to the crystalline powder, its hours-long high and, even more important, the mind-boggling amounts he could make hawking a few grams a week. "It's a nice feeling to know your paycheck isn't coming until next Friday, but you have 1,200, 1,500 bucks in your pocket," he says. He learned to control his habit, forcing down food when high to keep his six-foot-two frame to a healthy 205 pounds, and held on to his job as a tow-truck driver.
Miranda did everything with Vince, so it was only a matter of time before she did meth, too. She thought she'd just use it on the weekends, but soon it crept into her weekdays. "Internally, it made me feel like a million dollars," she says. "Wow, I can be supermom. I can clean the house, I can get all my work done, I can lose weight."
Vince and Miranda would look down on other meth users and their debilitating, humiliating "tweak projects" — their dumpster-diving and porn habits. After all, this couple's tweak project was their family. Vince used his habit to make sure he always had money for their kids. Miranda used hers to keep the household in perfect condition. They were the best parents in the world — or at least that's how it seemed. "The drug creates an illusion," says Vince. "It gives you that illusion that everything's okay, and it's not." Since the children were going to school and getting fed, the couple didn't realize that little things were slipping through the cracks — little things that added up to a lot. Like the kids staying up late, eating microwave meals. Or Vince and Miranda, fatigued and sleep-deprived, losing their temper and yelling at their children. Or, as Miranda says, how "they didn't listen, they were out of control, because I had no control as a parent. I had no self-control."
The couple just didn't see a problem, not even after Vince was caught with meth and cocaine in 1999 and got four years' probation. He stopped selling and using drugs for a while, but then "bills started piling up," he remembers, "so I went back to what I knew." Miranda would get clean for a stretch, too, like when she had her daughter in 2002, but then she'd fall back on the drug.
By the end of 2004, though, they swore they were ready to leave the lifestyle behind. Vince had lined up a new job, with better pay and better hours, so he wouldn't need to supplement his income by slinging meth. In early December, the night before he was supposed to start work, Vince stopped by a neighbor's apartment while Miranda stayed home, looking for a job online. The next day, everything was going to be different — they were sure of it.
That was the night Detective Lopez and the SWAT team kicked in their door.
The day after her task force found the baby in Thornton, Lori Moriarty called up Kathryn Wells, child-abuse pediatrician at Denver Health and medical director of the Denver Department of Human Services' Family Crisis Center. When Wells answered, the police commander did something unheard of in law enforcement: She asked the social-services specialist for help.
"Law enforcement looked at social services as someone to call if we needed a babysitter. We were busy with our own tasks and responsibilities, and social services was seen as a support mechanism, not a partnership," explains Moriarty. "Or we would call them about a child who was neglected or abused, and a lot of times, because of their workload, they would say, 'We'll make a note of it. Can you find a place for the child? We'll follow up the next day.'"
But Moriarty suspected that what she'd witnessed with this baby was abuse — and if so, she'd need to work hand in hand with social services to deal with it. Wells agreed that allowing kids to live in drug labs was tantamount to child abuse, but told Moriarty there was little way to prove or prosecute it. Since the drug cops weren't talking with social services, detectives didn't know when they should be on the lookout for child-welfare issues. Since social services wasn't getting information from the cops about their undercover work, they didn't have the information about abuse or neglect that they'd need to make smart decisions about the kids turning up on the raids. And because there were no child-abuse laws in Colorado — or anywhere else, for that matter — regarding kids in drug labs, the toughest charge you could hope for in these situations was likely a reckless-endangerment misdemeanor, a slap on the wrist that would often be dropped when the caregivers copped a plea for drug felonies they were facing. And finally, since there was no interaction between law enforcement, social services and the medical and scientific communities, there was no way to know the specific risks to kids growing up in drug environments. "Nobody was communicating," says Wells. "Whether it was medical or child welfare or law enforcement or the legal system, everybody was seeing the world through their own set of lenses."
"We were all working in our own silos," says Moriarty. "In the community response to children found in drug environments, as the child and the drug user moved through the system, they had contact with all these different disciplines, but no one discipline knew what the others were doing. The messages were conflicting, and it was almost impossible to get through the system successfully."
Moriarty and Wells decided it was time to shatter those silos. That summer, they traveled to Butte County, California, and met with Sue Webber-Brown, a district attorney investigator assigned to the local narcotics unit. "We were finding a lot of kids in these drug homes, and there was no one who was taking care of the children, identifying the victims and charging criminal charges," says Webber-Brown. "That's why we had to come up with our own plan." That plan, introduced in 1993, called for Drug Endangered Children, or DEC, teams: a coalition of police officers, child-welfare workers, medical personnel and prosecutors that together would deal with kids found in drug homes.
Moriarty and Wells brought the model back to Colorado and built on it. That fall, the two helped organize the first meeting of the Colorado Alliance for Drug Endangered Children, or Colorado DEC — with representatives from law enforcement, social services, the legal system and medical facilities across the state — and established a new protocol for children found in drug labs and homes. Police officers and social workers would work together as much as possible — before, during and after drug raids — to document and share evidence of child abuse and neglect and determine the best course of action for the kids and their parents. Medical personnel and child-protective services workers would examine the children as soon as possible after they were found. And prosecutors would use all of the information collected to prepare and coordinate child-endangerment and criminal charges.
"We were rocking and rolling," says Moriarty. "What we didn't realize was that it was a marathon, not a sprint to the finish line."
Vince and Miranda's three children were gone. They'd been taken away by social services the night of the bust — and the parents had one chance to get them back.
Chris Melonakis, 17th Judicial District Court judge and presiding judge of the Adams County Juvenile Court, made that clear to the couple when they walked into his courtroom a few weeks after the raid. The kids had been taken to Miranda's parents' house, and that's where they were going to stay unless Vince and Miranda followed every one of his stipulations, including months of drug treatments, life-skills therapy, parenting classes and weekly urine tests. One bad drug screening, one missed class, one report of tardiness, and the kids would most likely never come home. "He said if we wanted our kids, we had to show him through our actions, not words," says Vince, who'd been released after the raid with criminal charges pending. "He wanted us to show 110 percent."
Luckily for Vince, 110 percent was how he lived his life. "I looked at it as do or die," he remembers. "Jumping through the hoops of the courts and social services was nothing compared to having another chance at jumping through the hoops your kids put you through."
For Miranda, the bust had been a wake-up call — not just because her children had watched a SWAT team bust down their door, but also because Lopez had really talked to her about turning her life around. "Officer Lopez treated me like a human being, like a person, not like a monster," she says. "It was a beginning. He gave me hope." Melonakis gave her hope, too. He was only offering one shot at earning her kids back, but that's all she needed: "If I didn't have that chance, I would have given up. The one reason I would have made the change was for my children."
Lopez started getting monthly calls from Vince. He'd tell the detective about the drug classes he and Miranda were taking, where they learned they first had to stay clean for themselves, then stay clean for their children. He'd talk about their parenting classes, in which they were taught practical ways to keep their kids under control. He'd mention their life-skills therapist, Sandy Carole, who seemed really supportive when she supervised them interacting as a family. He'd brag about the months of clean drug tests they'd racked up. To Lopez, Vince sounded like a different person. "It was awesome," he says. "It is very rare in the drug community to have someone take the opportunity to turn themselves around like that. Usually the only time they dry out is in jail. The more he stayed clean, the more excited he was that he was doing it. He wanted someone to be proud of him, so I kept reinforcing that. I was thinking, 'My gosh, this is my chance to help someone along the way.'"
In December 2005, just three days shy of the one-year anniversary of the bust, and after nine months of drug treatment, perfect attendance at sixteen weeks of parent classes and all-clean urine tests, Vince and Miranda returned to Judge Melonakis's courtroom. "You know, the best Christmas present I can give a parent is a guarantee that they need not come back to court and they can be home with their children," the judge told them. "You should be proud of what you have accomplished in this case, and I will gladly dismiss this case."
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."
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."
And, contrary to popular thought, Moriarty discovered that the disease could be treatable. "In a lot of parts of this country, there is a belief that meth users do not respond to treatment like other alcohol and drug abusers do," says Richard Rawson, associate director of Integrated Substance Abuse Programs at the University of California, Los Angeles, who found that about 35 percent of meth users respond favorably to so-called matrix models of treatment, a combination of empirically based outpatient programs including relapse prevention, counseling and drug testing. "When you look at the data, meth users are no more or less treatable than anybody else who has a substance-abuse disorder." Talking with innovative drug-treatment managers like Nicolas Taylor, a clinical psychologist and addictions counselor in Montrose, and Judge Regina Walter, head of the family treatment drug court in El Paso County, Moriarty learned that they had found a way to overcome the fact that Colorado had one of the lowest rates of drug-treatment funding in the country. The trick was focusing on community-based matrix treatment models that avoided the excessive costs of inpatient treatment — models that, in the case of some meth-using parents, incorporated the possibility of keeping families together as an incentive for success. "What we are forcing to have happen is for the client to associate feeling good with good things that are happening in their life. We want to break that association with meth," says Taylor. "A family, especially children, provides us with an opportunity to reaffirm activities in a sober lifestyle. The beauty of a relationship with a child is that it can be as primitive and powerful as an addiction to meth."
Moriarty finally got it. "If treatment can work, we have to find those parents who can recover from their addiction," she says. "If there is a percentage of families you can put back together, we have a responsibility to do that." She began to incorporate treatment providers into her DEC case-flow models. She went back to the communities where she'd already spoken, back to the child-dependency judges, and told them she was wrong — that some meth addicts could recover, and that terminating parental rights wasn't necessarily the way to go.
After one of her presentations in Mesa County, a man in his mid-twenties came up to Moriarty. He said he was a recovering meth addict who'd seen her talk the year before, when her attitude toward people like him was very different. "I was so mad at you," he told her now. "You weren't giving anyone in the audience hope. But you have grown so much in the last year. It gives me hope that others can change their opinion of us, too."
"It was a hugely rewarding experience for me that a recovering addict could say to me, a cop, that I had grown," says Moriarty. "There was hope for both of us."
In March 2006, Lopez got a very different kind of phone call from Vince. Miranda was gone, he cried hysterically. Vince and the kids didn't even get a chance to say goodbye.
Vince and Miranda's charges from the December 2004 drug raid had finally come down: felony possession and distribution, which they both pleaded down to felony possession. Vince was scheduled to go before a judge in a few weeks for his sentencing; Miranda had just gone before 17th Judicial District Court Judge Edward Moss, who'd been mayor of Westminster — Vince and Miranda had dealt meth to his constituents — before becoming a judge and getting assigned to the criminal division four months earlier. Everyone expected Miranda to get probation: She was a non-violent offender with no previous felonies who'd been clean fourteen months and had won her kids back. Her defense attorney was asking for probation, social services was asking for probation, the prosecutor was asking for probation.
But that's not what Miranda got. "The one thing everyone agrees on is that sales of methamphetamine is a gruesome, gruesome crime. Not only does it involve injury to your family, but it involves injury to all the other people that you and your husband were selling to," Judge Moss said. "And while we have many, many people trying to improve our community, we have people who tear it down. I'm going to sentence you to four years in the Department of Corrections plus three years of mandatory parole."
"The whole courtroom gasped," remembers Miranda. "I didn't get a shot at probation. I didn't get to prove that I can change, that there is more to me than a drug addiction."
"Of the 1,500 or so cases I have handled, I have never had a client do as much as Miranda to turn her life around," says David Beller, Miranda's public defender. "I have also never seen as many people in the legal community plead for the court to understand how much probation would help ensure the permanency of the law-abiding life she and Vince had made for themselves and their children. The criminal-justice system is designed to put an end to a criminal cycle. Everything that happened up until sentencing satisfied that purpose. With the single five-minute imposition of an unjust sentence, that was all lost."
A few days later, at a North Metro Task Force meeting, Lopez told Moriarty, his commander, about a drug case he'd been tracking that involved a mom and dad and three kids. He said that the parents were getting clean, that the system was working on their behalf. But now the mom was going to prison, and he didn't understand why. He wanted to know if he could testify for them.
Moriarty was amazed. "At a meeting where the common thing to do was to talk about how many years you got a person sentenced to, this detective was asking if he could testify on behalf of a family," she remembers. "His piece in the system is usually prosecution and putting someone in jail, and I was watching his thought process go to where he saw these people had potential for recovery. That's social change. That's the beginning of it right there."
Moriarty told Lopez to do whatever he could do. A few weeks later, he testified at Vince's sentencing hearing. Even though Vince was already on probation, even though Lopez had caught him dealing drugs, the detective asked 17th Judicial District Court Judge Kathy Delgado not to lock the father of three away. Delgado understood, sentencing Vince to four years of intensive supervised probation.
"Detective Lopez is usually in my court testifying about meth labs and getting warrants for people who are doing bad things related to meth," Delgado said to Vince. "You need to be there for your children, and that's one of the main reasons that I'm doing this, because your children have been through a lot already.... They deserve to have a parent, and you've demonstrated that you can be a good parent as long as you stay on the right track." Then Lopez went in front of Judge Moss, asking him to reconsider Miranda's sentence. Moss did — dropping her DOC sentence from four years to two.
For Miranda, that still meant up to 24 months at Pueblo Minimum Center prison. For someone who'd never spent any significant time in jail, everything was new: the little tubes of toothpaste and shampoo she got when she arrived; the long days she filled by picking up trash in fields on work crews and scrubbing bathrooms at night; the hours she spent waiting impatiently for letters and once-a-week visits from her family. She thought she caught a break when, seven months into her sentence, she was approved for community corrections, but the Denver halfway house to which she was sent proved to be even more challenging. She worked seventy hours a week at two fast-food restaurants to pay for her halfway-house rent, restitution charges and the drug classes she was required to take — even though she'd already completed every drug treatment available.
The fact that Miranda was already clean made the process even more confusing and frustrating. "We were rebuilding a family after a drug addiction, and everyone was trying to pick up the pieces, and they took me away from my family all over again," she says. In prison and in the halfway house, she saw many recovering addicts succumb to the odds and fall back on drugs — but she never did. "I didn't give up, because I knew that was what put me in this place to begin with," she says. "I had come way too far for that. There was no way I was going to hurt my children again or tear our family apart any more than it had already been. I went to DOC with my head on my shoulders. I used that time to make me stronger. I knew that when I came home, because of what I had been through, there was nothing I couldn't do without drugs."
The North Metro Task Force gathers around coffee and doughnuts in a basement meeting room in the Thornton police station. Lopez is here, scruffy as ever. The detectives talk about recent cases, like the marijuana bust last week that netted more than a million dollars' worth of pot. Then a special guest stands up: Lori Moriarty, until recently the task force's commander. She has some questions.
"What does reduced recidivism among drug users mean to undercover drug agents?" she asks the room.
The response is unanimous: "Leave them in jail."
Moriarty nods. "What about the next generation?" she asks. "How many of you have arrested someone and noticed their children and thought, we'll be arresting you in five, ten years?"
"Raise your hand if you think we have found in the past year all the kids involved at drug arrests," she continues.
No hands go up. "How about 50 percent?" she suggests. Still no hands.
"How many think we identified 10 percent of the kids?" A few detectives nod. "Maybe less," one offers.
The answers aren't surprising. "Social change takes a while," Moriarty says. More than five years after she first discovered a kid in a meth lab, the North Metro Task Force still has a long way to go. Even now, there's no guarantee that drug cops will call social-service workers or other DEC first responders for drug busts involving children; staff turnover and limited resources strain inter-agency relations. Many police officers don't know — or don't bother to find out — how to connect the children and families they find on raids with meaningful treatment and other programs that might actually turn their situations around.
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.
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?"
It's always a call about business, a colleague or a client — but his business isn't meth. Last year Vince and his mother started their own towing company, and times are good. Outside the diner sits their second tow truck, purchased just last week. He also bought a home, a pretty place in Westminster across the street from a school. His aunt and uncle live in the basement, so there's always someone to look after the children if they get home before Vince does. "When we moved into the house, I told my kids, this is a new beginning. We are going to start over fresh," he says. "It's been a long process. Ain't none of it has been easy."
He won't deny there's a chance of relapse, but he's optimistic: "We're on the back nine."
He's interrupted by one of his phones. This time it's a text message from Miranda: "I love U more than anything."
This is the only way Miranda can show him her love — by phone. In February, she was released with an ankle bracelet from the halfway house to live with her parents, just over a mile from the house that Vince purchased. But she's not allowed to see her husband in person. Her children stay with her Sunday and Monday when she's not working her fast-food job, but she can't see them with Vince. They can't take the kids to see a movie together; they can't sit down for dinner as a family. Miranda's parole officer says that Vince is a co-defendant in her case, that he's a felon. The couple doesn't know how long the ban will last — maybe even the rest of her three-year parole.
Miranda is blown away by what Vince has accomplished. "He's succeeding and becoming more than I ever thought he would ever be," she says. Still, it's hard to think about everything she's missed: the new business, the new house, birthdays and Mother's Day — and her kids growing up. She's torn about what the system put her through, what it did to her family. "The drug and alcohol classes, urine tests, the life-skills therapy I did, being able to take care of my kids.... Apparently something worked, or I would have fallen off the wagon long before Judge Moss considered my case," she says. "But we were dealing with two different systems. We were dealing with a child-support system and a criminal system. I had the support of my children's judge and that court system, and the other side of the court shut down everything I was working for."
But Miranda doesn't fault the judge or anyone else. "I don't blame the system," she says. "I did this to myself."
It's hard dealing with what she and her husband did to their children: the drug-fueled neglect and endangerment, the police raid, the year spent away from their parents, the visits to their mother in prison, the confusion as to why Mommy still can't come home. Despite all the help that Vince and Miranda received from social services, the children were never offered independent counseling or support. They're not damaged goods, as some folks label kids from drug homes, but recovery hasn't been easy. "It took me almost two years to convince my twelve-year-old son that all this wasn't his fault. He thought if he hadn't told the police where I was the night of the raid, everything would still be good," says Vince. "That's a hell of a barrier, to convince him, 'It's not your fault; it's my fault for being a bad parent.'"
But one day, his son finally understood that it wasn't his fault. And he realized something else. "I know my daddy isn't selling drugs anymore," he says. "My daddy's not always in his room anymore. He comes home from work and cleans the house and plays with us, and there's not a hundred different people in the house every day.
"I am proud of my daddy."