Meth in Indian Country: A Call to Action1 By Cindy Marchand-Cecil2 Abstract Those who provide social services in the homes of community members are oftentimes overwhelmed at the dysfunction in family systems. Personal experiences become a call to action both to bring attention to the issues, but also to find ways to address and resolve them. The impact of methamphetamine use and the way it harms children and families is one such social problem. While dealers have permeated the country with illicit drugs, the situation has become an epidemic in Indian Country. Looking at this problem through the eyes of a social service provider who works a local nonprofit social service organization in rural Thurston County, Washington, this case explores the roots of the methamphetamine problem in Indian Country, and shares various strategies at the federal and local level to deal with it. NOTE: This case study includes several links to very informational visuals. After placing your mouse over the websites, select control left-click to access the websites.
Part 1 Meth: The Yesterdays I Have Seen and the Tomorrows I Hope ForIn my practice as a social worker, I see many pregnant women in their homes throughout a number of different counties in the State of Washington. I begin my case study with stories of meth in families who live in rural Thurston County, but it’s important to say, right off, that meth use is an epidemic everywhere, not just in Indian communities. Although all of my stories are true, it is also important to note that all identifying information and other facts of the cases described here have been altered because of client confidentiality. It is also important to understand that Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) rules and regulations are the same across the United States, no matter who employs the social workers.
I will never forget that day. I was driving down the last of a long line of narrow dirt roads in unincorporated rural Thurston County, Washington, where the only directions available to me were two lone lifelines – one, an endless series of garden hoses, all hooked together, and the other, a multitude of orange-colored electrical extension cords, all strung together. Every few feet, I thought maybe I had reached my destination, when I passed first to an old broken-down shack, and next an old pick-up camper, and then a forlorn-looking ‘butt-hut’ of a weather-beaten travel trailer. Multitudes of dogs had torn apart heaping piles of garbage bags that were scattered everywhere. The encampment I discovered was littered everywhere with dirty diapers and the rotting trash from weeks’ past.
As I neared the end of the road, I caught site of a little 14-month-old girl, where she stood, sad eyes cast down, on the bare dirt inside of what was left of a playpen forming the four sides of her caged enclosure. When I pulled up closer, I could see the only thing she had on was a diaper, which was so full it hung to her knees, and the top of it was slung well below her tiny little hip bones. The rest of her body was covered in filth, and a torn teddy bear was lying in the dirt beneath her feet. As I looked beyond the child, I caught my first glance of her mother, sitting on the steps of the tiny travel trailer, with a cigarette hanging from her mouth.
While I gazed at the skeletal figure of the mother, who I had been told was six months pregnant, I explained that my purpose was to help her access services available for pregnant women. She explained that she and her boyfriend, together with her six children, lived in the travel trailer, which had no running water and no bathroom. As she spoke, she nodded dejectedly across their garbage-ridden driveway to what was once one-half of a double-wide mobile home. She explained that they were in the process of ‘finishing off’ that part of the half that was open to the air. She hoped to have it completed by the time winter set in, some four weeks away, so the family would have more room. In the meantime, she paid $300 dollars per month to the lady who let her live on her land and provided power and water via the hoses and extension cords, to every last person inhabiting this makeshift community.
When I went to see her a week or so later, she, her family and the whole enclave of campers and trailers on the dirt road had completely disappeared. After asking around, I found that they had moved to a different place ‘to keep an eye on it while the owner served out his jail time.’ Driving down a new batch of long, dusty roads, I passed large groups of nasty pick-up campers propped up on rocks or whatever was lying around, where now and again a small curtain pulled back, just enough to reveal a large, bloodshot eye staring back at me. “The sentinels,” I mused, as I picked out where I would park, just in case I needed to make a quick getaway.
The owner of this land had been caught at last, and was serving a jail sentence for the manufacture and sale of meth. In the meantime, his tenants were there, making the most of their free rent options.
My client had moved to this spot, located next to a small river, where she siphoned water straight from the river with a short length of gardening hose, which she said she boiled before using. When I got out of my car, no less than 40 or so people came wandering out from a variety of shacks and other broken down buildings to watch our exchange. When it came time for me to leave, people came up to me and said, “don’t you know she is a tweaker? And she’s pregnant, you know….I mean, it’s one thing to be doing drugs, but she’s pregnant, you got it?”
As if I didn’t get it. As if I hadn’t seen clients like her, many times over.
When I tried to find her the next time, I had no luck. But news travels fast in small towns, and pretty soon, I heard she had delivered her baby, right there in that old, broken down travel trailer. Word got around the encampment that she had sent her oldest boy to a nearby store for some Pepto-Bismol, and while he was away, the baby was born. She thought all she had was a stomach ache. She said she had NO idea she was about to deliver a baby.
Informal approaches to law enforcement in drug communities can be fascinating. The whole enclave banded together and told her that if both she and her baby did not report to the hospital, immediately, they were going to contact Children’s Protective Services, and all of her children would be taken away. Then deputies from the local sheriff’s office called me and started telling me about the family. I explained that I had been seeing them and knew where they lived. The deputies advised that they knew I’d been there, because they had been involved in undercover surveillance (known as ‘ninching’ by some) and they had seen me coming and going, though I never saw them. Why were they there? Because through helicopter surveillance, they had discovered several ‘dead zones’ where there were huge circles of land where all the vegetation was dead, marking the telltale spots where ‘drug dumps’ occur, when drug manufacturers toss the remnants of their drug-making, which include all sorts of chemicals and contaminated equipment that kills everything in the surrounding area. They were watching me in the process of finding and arresting the meth manufacturers.
Faced with staying and being turned in, the mom had no choice and reported to the hospital with her baby. Both the Mom and the baby tested positive for meth. Mom said that she had no idea that she was pregnant, and besides, she had “only used meth twice” that morning. Eventually, all seven children were taken into protective custody and the parents were arrested for other, unrelated offenses, booked, and released. Last I heard, the seven children had been divided up into three foster homes, and all of them were ‘starting life over’ with a different family. But how do you start life all over again, when some of your brothers and sisters, whom you love, are living in different homes? And what about your Mom and Dad?
About that time, I started taking teachers, elders, spiritual leaders, and other community members on tours to homes where what little food was kept in the house was locked up, to keep hungry young children from having afternoon snacks. “But it’s so we’ll have enough food to last all month long,” explained their parents. I explained how these children would greet me and tear open large bags of bread I brought with me, oftentimes devouring whole loaves of bread right in front of me, because they were so hungry. Did you ever notice how hungry crows will pick the protein products before the less nutritious foods? It was the same way with these kids; they would rip into the buns that had cheese melted over the top before eventually attacking whole loaves of bread. I remember seeing them fight over cold, flattened left-over baked potatoes they found in the oven from several days’ prior. “When you see kids that look a bit like street urchins in your classrooms,” I explained to the assembled teachers, “please talk to the cafeteria staff and figure out a way to get some food from the cafeteria for them. They need it.”
At another home, I explained how one woman had been prostituting her 11 year-old daughter as a way to raise the money needed for her frequent fixes. Did you ever see pictures of a 43-year old man curled up in a chair with an 11-year old girl, dressed only in her panties and bra, acting out sexually with one another? “Well, she’s retarded, you know, and doesn’t know the difference,” retorted her mother. Seeing things like this can curdle your insides, that is what I know.
I showed my tourists a seemingly harmless fellow walking down the streets, who was known on the streets, however, as ‘The Enforcer.’ This is because he comes to collect on debts when people receive their monthly checks at the beginning of the month. If they don’t pay up, he has back-ups and the situation could easily worsen unless bills are paid in full.
At several stops, I demonstrated how easily portable labs can be built, right before our very eyes, with little knowledge by the average person that anything wrong is happening. I spoke to the people in my van about the smell, and the certain way people look, after they had been using meth. I asked the teachers at the local schools to please take time to love the children, and to ask them whether they were OK, and to stop and talk to them if the children in their classes looked sad, lonely, hungry, or dejected. I asked them to love the children when their parents couldn’t.
I asked everyone to begin thinking about what they could do for the children, but also for the addicts. This was because their behavior was so unthinkable and intolerable that it was obvious that something had caught them and completely burnt up their own sense of reason.
That was about three years ago. You might wonder where these people are now, and what became of them. The woman who allowed porno pictures of her 11 year-old daughter lost custody of all her children and is serving a prison sentence for abusing her children, and for manufacturing and selling meth. The little street-urchin children moved away with their parents to another community – the tactic of moving around a great deal makes it harder for authorities to catch up with them and take custody of abused and neglected children.
And the mother of the seven children? Well, she’s much worse off. Unable to stop using and cooking, she and her partner eventually generated an explosion in their home. Her partner decided to help treat her burns by placing her in a tub of water. Then, not wanting to get caught, he took off. When morning arrived, and people started noticing the smoldering parts of the house, they called the fire department. What they found sickened and shocked them, for inside the bathtub was the woman, who having initially weighed around 125 pounds before the explosion, had only about 75 pounds left on her six hours later. The combination of the acid and water dissolved and burned away her flesh. Though she was still breathing when they arrived, she succumbed to her injuries later that day.
Now think of this mother of seven, and her children, including her little baby. They became what we call meth orphans (Zernicke, 2005). Yet, I am so thankful her children had been removed from their custody by then.
Being a social worker can take its toll. What might seem like a Sunday drive for others is nothing but a constant reminder of places I’ve been, people I’ve seen, and the desperate circumstances in their lives, all because of the scourge we call meth. A drive to see a person’s new home in a nearby community is a reminder of the place where I met the 43-year old, first-time mother, who was waiting for her boyfriend to come home after his prison sentence for felony theft. Once released, he was still unable to curb his desire for meth, so the permanent solution he sought became reality when he jumped off the bridge in Olympia while high on meth. He plunged to his death on the freeway below. The 43-year old woman died two years later, from the cumulative damage of taking meth, leaving their three small children orphans, victims to the endless rampage.
These are the yesterdays I have seen, and it has made me begin to think about the tomorrows for which I hope. I started wondering, “What is working in other communities?” What groups of people have mobilized and partnered to take action against perhaps the deadliest war we might ever fight?
It is a call to action.
Group I - Discussion Questions:
How does the use of meth in families generally impact basic living conditions?
How is the meth crisis visible and invisible in the community? Discuss.
What larger environmental and public safety concerns come into play with respect to the increased use of meth? Discuss.
How does meth impact the lives of young children in the larger community, such as school?
What is the individual and community responsibility towards addressing the meth crisis in the community?
How does meth use impact public service organizations, such as law enforcement, emergency medic and fire responders, social services, schools, courts, treatment facilities, transportation providers, the criminal justice process, and hospitals?
How does meth impact non-users in the community?
How does meth use in the family impact the long-term stability and well-being of children?
What do you think should be done to address this problem?
What types of research should be completed to address this social problem in Indian communities?