Children are the silent and small victims of skyrocketing number of home meth labs
Highly dangerous ‘shake and bake’ method of making meth causes untold misery to children of junkies.
By Deborah Hastings / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS Published: Wednesday, July 24, 2013
These are the youngest victims of meth: the injured, killed, abused, neglected and poisoned caused by junkies using a cheap, new production method. The Meth Prevention Project of South Dakota compiles these images from law enforcement agencies around the country.
Two-year-old Frankee Arroyo, a sweet-faced, doe-eyed girl living in rural Kentucky, was sitting in the front of a Cadillac Escalade belonging to her mother’s boyfriend, a meth junkie who police say liked to cook his own junk.
She reached for a glass in the center console’s cup holder, raised it to her lips, and swallowed drain cleaner.
The sulfuric acid burned its way down her small throat and into her stomach. It ate through the leather upholstery.
And Frankee joined the ranks of an unknown number of children who have been scarred, killed, neglected or abused by a skyrocketing number of domestic meth labs.
In record-setting numbers, meth addicts are now able to manufacture their poison in their homes and cars in a extremely volatile method called “shake and bake.” It is not done in a traditional methamphetamine factory but in a 2-liter plastic soda bottle with ingredients available at local hardware and drugstores.
No one keeps centralized statistics on the number of children who suffer because of this at-home epidemic. The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates at least 30% of domestic meth busts occur where children live or visit. Local law enforcement agencies say that number can be as high as 90%.
But a look at recent headlines documenting domestic meth lab busts illustrate horrific and heartbreaking stories:
The basic household items needed for do-it-yourself meth manufacturing, shown in a 2013 Government Accountability Office report.
— Little Frankee was in a medically induced coma last month after mother Racheal Arroyo and boyfriend Jared McStoots of Ohio County finally took her to a hospital, six hours after she drank Liquid Fire drain cleaner used to manufacture meth, investigators said.
— A 3-year-old boy in Florida, after brushing his teeth earlier this year, drank from a sippy cup that was sitting on the bathroom sink. He suffered severe burns. The cup contained drain opener.
— A 15-month-old in Ohio was seriously injured from simply toddling around her home and picking up things contaminated with meth residue. In April, she sustained second- and third-degree burns on her back and mouth. Her genitals were also burned by poisonous dust that got inside her diaper.
— A 1-year-old in Alabama suffered critical skin burns from drain cleaner after a March meth accident in his home spewed caustic chemicals.
— A 20-month-old boy died in Kentucky’s Wayne County in 2009 after drinking from a cup left on a bedroom table that was filled with Liquid Fire.
And the untold misery may worsen as the popularity of homegrown meth labs continues its destructive streak.
A report earlier this year by the Government Accountability Office showed the number of “clandestine” meth incidents more than doubled in 2010 to some 15,000, after an all-time low of about 7,000.
Last year, according to DEA statistics, more than 11,000 were reported.
Ohio County Detention Center
Racheal Arroyo’s toddler daughter drank from a glass containing Liquid Fire drain cleaner, authorities say. She remains behind bars in Ohio County, Ky., charged with wanton child endangerment for allegedly exposing her little girl to meth manufacturing.
The record-setting drop in 2007 had been hailed as a major victory in the war against drugs and was credited to increased federal and state restrictions on over-the-counter sales of cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, a stimulant critical to manufacturing methamphetamine.
But meth cookers have found a way to get around new restrictions on buying pseudoephedrine found in cold and sinus remedies such as Sudafed. They simply send out buyers en masse to buy boxes of the medicine in a practice known as “smurfing.” And then they use the “shake and bake” method, also known as “one-pot,” to make meth themselves.
The highly dangerous process, which is prone to explosions, has transformed illegal meth production in recent years.
Instead of a lengthy process involving burners, beakers and a fairly sophisticated operation in a remote location, meth can now be made anywhere in a matter of minutes by mixing psuedoephedrine, caustic chemicals such as drain cleaner and other household items including lithium batteries and cold packs.
And who suffers the most from this do-it-yourself drug manufacturing?
“They are dragged into this unwillingly,” Carol Cha, the GAO’s acting director of Homeland Security and Justice, told the Daily News. “Law enforcement sees the lab problem as having the greatest impact on children.”
The GAO survey tracked the effects of domestic meth labs over a 10-year period beginning in 2002. It found that more than 21,000 kids had been impacted during that time.
Police Hand Out
In Santa Rosa County, Fla., Jonathan Wayne Glass and Victoria Lauren Cain were arrested in February after their 3-year-old drank drain cleaner from a sippy cup left in the bathroom of a home where meth was being made, authorities say.
But that may be an inaccurately low figure.
Some states keep much more detailed records than others. In hard-hit Tennessee, for example, 1,625 children were taken into state custody in just five years.
Injuries aren’t the only danger to the children living in labs. Exposure to meth chemicals, including breathing the air where they are being used, can cause brain damage and respiratory disease. Sexual and physical abuse occur in higher numbers when adults are high on drugs, according to medical and social services experts.
The government report also discovered child welfare systems reeling under the sheer volume of juveniles entering the system.
In one Missouri county, for example, so many children were removed from meth lab homes that there are no more foster families to take them.
The financial costs are high. In Missouri, which has the country’s second-highest number of domestic labs incidents – 2,114 in 2011 – the Department of Social Services reported it has spent $3.4 million since 2005 on custodial care.
In Tennessee, home to the nation’s biggest number of home meth labs – 2,326 in 2011 — the financial numbers are staggering. More than $70 million was paid by the Department of Children’s Services to care for kids taken into state custody from January 2007 to December 2011.
The GAO’s numbers vary slightly from yearly incident totals kept by the DEA’s El Paso Intelligence Center, which collects data from federal and local sources. As examples, the El Paso center reported 2,315 incidents in Tennessee during 2011, and 2,075 cases in Missouri.
State-by-state incidents documented by the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2011 involving at-home meth lab busts and domestic meth cleanup sites.
The actual number of children harmed by meth manufacturing in this country is impossible to know.
“There is no consistent system to track the number of kids in these cases,” Dr. Kathryn Wells, a child abuse pediatrician and medical director of the Denver Family Crisis Center, told The News. “There are cases being missed. I can guarantee it,” she said.
“We don’t know how big the population is or how to track them,” Wells said.
Because of child privacy and protection laws, it’s not known what happens to these injured and abused children after their relatives are arrested. Some end up in foster care; others are placed with relatives.
According to a Facebook page dedicated to Frankee, the toddler is out of the hospital and has been placed in a foster home.
All of the above cases resulted in meth production, and child endangerment charges being filed against the parents or guardians. Most are still behind bars.
The exception is Bryan Daniels, 22, who was acquitted of murder in January for the 2009 death of his toddler son, Kayden. Mother Alisha Branham, who was 14 when Kayden died after drinking drain cleaner, faced juvenile charges. Her records are sealed.
Both admitted to being meth users, but said someone else had left out the cup filled with the corrosive acid that burns through skin, clothing and certain metals.
Cleveland Municipal Housing Court
A Cleveland meth lab home was raided in February by police, who found three children, who were between 13 months and 4 years old, living there.
Law enforcement officers on the frontline of busting home labs say meth-addicted parents are so far gone and so desperate to keep on using that they spin lie after lie about how a child came to be hurt.
In Frankee’s case, her mother and her boyfriend misled doctors and investigators for days about what the little girl had swallowed, endangering her recovery, Detective Timothy Hatfield of the Ohio County Sheriff’s Office told The News.
“First they said they had no idea what she had gotten a hold of,” Hatfield said. “Then they said maybe it was rat poison.”
Deputies had to get a search warrants. At McStoot’s house, they found the remnants of a meth lab, including Liquid Fire, the detective said.
Under interrogation, McStoots continuously denied making meth, Hatfield said, despite witnesses who told investigators the couple were so high and the little girl so badly burned that they threatened to attack the boyfriend if the couple didn’t immediately take Frankee to the hospital.
“I walked out of the interview room about four times. I would get so mad,” Hatfield said. “I thought I was going to hurt him.”
At one point, McStoots said the shot glass in his SUV contained drain cleaner that he was taking to his girlfriend’s house to unclog a drain, Hatfield said.
He complained that it had burned the upholstery, the detective said.
Ohio County Detention Center
Jared McStoots, 23, remains jailed after authorities arrested him in June on child endangerment and meth production charges. His girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter was critically burned after drinking drain cleaner.
“He seemed more concerned about what it had done to his seat rather than what it had done to her,” Hatfield said.
The detective said Racheal Arroyo eventually admitted what happened to her little girl:
The drain cleaner was in the car because they planned to drive to a friend’s house and cook meth. She said McStoots refused to let her call 911 or take Frankee to the hospital. He tried to get the little girl to swallow water to dilute the drain cleaner and then, inexplicably, forced vinegar down her throat.
“That probably made it worse,” Hatfield said.
Six hours later, after being threatened by neighbors, the couple took Frankee to a local hospital, Hatfield said, where the critically injured child was flown to a Louisville medical center about 90 miles away.
Arroyo and McStoots didn’t show up in Louisville until noon the next day, Hatfield said, and staff banned them from visiting the child because both appeared to be high.
Sheriff’s deputies later arrested them at the boyfriend’s house. Arroyo, 20, and McStoots, 23, face a variety of felony charges including wanton child endangerment and manufacturing meth. Each is jailed in lieu of $275,000 bail.
Dr. Wells, who has been involved in monitoring meth lab children since 2002, says neglect may continue after kids end up in foster care because there is no easy way to track what happens to them. “We’re doing a very poor job,” she said.
So how best to protect these small victims of at-home drug labs?
According to the GAO’s Cha, many law enforcement officials say making pseudoephedrine available only by prescription would dramatically drive down the number of domestic meth cookers and thereby safeguard children.
But only two states have such laws – Oregon and Mississippi. In the latter, reports of children endangered by meth labs declined by 81% after a prescription-only law was passed in 2010. In Oregon, child welfare authorities said they hadn’t removed a child from an active meth lab since 2007, one year after its law was enacted, she said.
Other states that have tried to pass such restrictions were unsuccessful after pharmaceutical lobbies argued the laws would unfairly limited access to over-the-counter medication, Cha said.
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