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In its destructive effect on rural families and their children, methamphetamine may be in a class of its own, based on the first study from an ongoing research project in seven Central Illinois counties, conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
If the children of alcoholics often find themselves in a "thunderstorm" of family problems, then the drug methamphetamine brings a "tornado" by comparison, says one of the researchers. The professionals and caregivers who pick up the pieces often lack the knowledge or resources to deal with the children's trauma and its consequences, the study found.
"These kids are at a very high risk for mental health and substance-abuse disorders, and yet we have very little descriptive information about their psychological development and well-being," said Wendy Haight, the Illinois social work professor who is leading the research.
Despite the spread of methamphetamine use since the late 1980s, and in Illinois for at least a decade, this study may be the first to look at the culture and family dynamics it creates, especially in rural areas, and the effect of that on the children of users, Haight said.
"Even though our study is rooted in a particular community, it has wider implications in terms of how we approach this problem, looking at the unique rural context," she said.
Everyone dealing with the problem, from social workers to teachers to police, "is grasping at straws," according to Linda Kingery, a social work graduate student and one of the project researchers, as well as a child-welfare worker in the counties studied. Everyone is looking for answers, she said, "and that's why this research is so relevant."
The study found situations of profound neglect and abuse, physical danger resulting from in-house manufacture of the drug, and parents teaching their children criminal behavior and a paranoid distrust of authority.
The same rural isolation that makes it easier to hide the manufacture of the drug also makes it easier to hide evidence of child abuse and neglect, the researchers noted.
They heard stories of 10-year-old children becoming surrogate parents to younger siblings, as their parents went through days-long highs, often accompanied by psychotic symptoms, followed by crashes and days of sleep. Parents making the drug in their homes exposed their children to toxic fumes and the danger of explosions or fires. Some asked their children to steal items needed for making the drug or to stand guard, armed with a gun, looking out for police or other authorities.
One positive found in the research was the response of the community. "What we've seen is that in the rural community, the community steps up," Kingery said. "When you have a small community, they know who's doing what, and what these kids are going through, and the schools just constantly step up to the plate."
Educators with suspicions about what is going on in a child's family will make allowances for them staying after school, or providing for basic necessities, and the children often are eligible for free breakfast and lunch programs. "All of that may be completely up for grabs when they get home," Haight said.
Haight and her research colleagues interviewed 35 people who had regular contact with children of methamphetamine-abusing parents, including 18 child-welfare workers, seven foster-caregivers, six counselors, a state's attorney, a police officer, and an elementary school principal.
They also reviewed relevant local records and conducted about 90 hours of field work over six months, including 17 mornings or afternoons shadowing a child-welfare investigator on visits to rural homes. They also interviewed 12 children in foster care whose parents had abused methamphetamine.
The study was done in collaboration with the Charleston field office of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), which covers the counties of Clark, Coles, Cumberland, Douglas, Edgar, Moultrie and Shelby.
The Charleston field office handles about 100 hotline reports of child maltreatment per month, and about a quarter involve parent methamphetamine abuse.
An article on their study, "In These Bleak Days: Parent Methamphetamine Abuse and Child Welfare in the Rural Midwest," will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Children and Youth Services Review.
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