When police bust a methamphetamine lab in Salem, Ore., they often find children, the smallest victims of a drug epidemic that has incapacitated parents and has flooded the child welfare system.
Authorities estimate there has been a 45 percent increase in the number of children in foster care in Oregon in the past four years due to a huge increase in drug- and alcohol-related arrests. And that has put enormous strain on the overburdened Oregon system.
Watch ABC News' and "Primetime's" special series on foster care, "A Call to Action: Saving Our Children," beginning Thursday, June 1.
"Meth has emerged as nothing short of a weapon of mass destruction in our community, leaving in its wake its greatest casualty, and that is our children, one child at a time, by the hundreds," said Walt Beglau, district attorney of Marion County, Ore.
With meth emerging as the drug of choice among more and more parents in Oregon and across the West and Midwest, children have become the collateral damage. Crackdowns on methamphetamine labs have created unintended consequences -- a spike in the number of foster children in Salem and surrounding Marion County.
In Oregon, 5,515 children entered the system in 2004, up from 4,946 the year before, and officials say the problem would be half what it is now if it were not for meth. The number of children entering foster care has doubled in the past three years, officials say.
"The number of calls we started getting in child welfare around meth-using parents ... shot through the roof," said Jason Walling, head of Child Protective Services in Marion County. "We've seen a rise on average of 35 to 38 children coming in to foster care a month, till now we have well over a hundred children a month coming into foster care. And in March of last year we saw approximately 165 children come in, just in that one month."
Walling said the impact has been immense. "It has led to the most devastating crisis that our community has ever seen, in my opinion," he said.
Nationally, like crack in the 1980s, meth has had a devastating impact on the child welfare system across the country. Some 17,000 meth labs were raided by law enforcement last year, 400 of them in Oregon.
The Drug Enforcement Administration said that over the last five years, 15,000 children were found at laboratories where methamphetamine was made. The National Association of Counties said that 40 percent of child welfare officials surveyed nationwide said that meth had caused a rise in the number of children removed from homes. The percentage was far higher on the West Coast, the Midwest and in rural areas, where the drug has hit the hardest.
Kids Living in a 'Hell Hole'
Judge Pamela Abernethy, a juvenile court judge in Marion County, Ore., said the vast majority of the cases she sees are meth-related.
"On meth, people get down below what we would consider the nadir," said Abernethy. "It's amazing to me the depth of degradation that people get to on meth. In many of these houses there is drug paraphernalia within reach of these little kids who are toddling or crawling around. There is a pipe; there are in some cases syringes. And it is a hell hole, a hell hole."
Meth is highly addictive and can cause parents to neglect children while they search for their next hit. Abernethy said meth is also a highly sexualized drug. She said that men and women will engage in sex in front of small children, and that mothers on meth will trade sex for a hit.
"It's a tough drug," said Abernethy. "So when you say, 'OK now you have been arrested, we have taken your kids away, go get clean.' The mom said, 'Gee, what do I have to live for? ... Why not just keep using?' And if you're pregnant, that's a really, really horrible choice."
Over the past six months, ABC News was permitted to accompany police and child welfare workers as they removed children from parents suspected of using meth. After a bust, the child must be decontaminated, examined at a hospital for traces of the drug in his or her system, and then placed in foster care.
Salem police officer Jeff Barrett is part of a special team called DART, the drug activity response team. In place since September of last year, he said, "in that time we've taken almost 300 children into detective custody out of mostly methamphetamine houses."
Placing those children is not easy. If there are siblings involved, social workers attempt to place the children together, often because the older sibling has been taking care of the younger ones in the parents' absence.
After one 3-year-old boy was placed with a foster parent named Traci, she noticed he was behaving strangely. "When we first got him he basically laid on the floor on back of the couch and didn't really do hardly anything. We couldn't even get him to sleep in a bed. ...We would get up to check on him, so I'd hear a noise and he'd be sitting on the front porch. And he'd be sitting there like a dog, and he'd just watch the traffic go by. He'd get up on the back of the couch, and he would just curl up like a dog."
Traci says she suspects the young boy was being cared for by the family dog. His mother, Cynthia, denies it.
During her arrest, she said she regretted losing her son. "I'm going to miss him so bad," said Cynthia, who had already had three children removed in the past. "You know the hardest part for me is when I lost my children. I lost my whole world, and I thought I died."
Meth is a powerful drug, she said. "One time will mess you up. Just one time could take your life from you."
Cynthia went to prison for 15 days, and received six months of rehab treatment. She sees her son during weekly supervised visits. She vows she will get her child back.
"I love my child," she said. "No way. I'm not gonna give up. Not like I did with the other ones. Then I didn't care. I do care. I love my child."
Churchgoers Answer the Call
In Oregon many mothers struggle to get their children back. Every Tuesday they come to Abernethy's drug court and talk about what it is like to lose a child to meth.
"It was the most heartbreaking moment of my life because I had just given birth two days before and they took her from me," said one young mother, Kaitlyn. "The first week or so I lost everybody that had cared or respected or anything. I didn't want to live anymore. I hurt my daughter, I hurt my son, I hurt my husband, I hurt everybody."
Judge Abernethy believes that if possible, it is important to try to rehabilitate the women and try to reunite the families. The consequences are dire if they fail. "We are going to have another child on our hands who is going to cost society millions of dollars in special medical services, special education services, juvenile delinquency and prison," she said.
Officials say methamphetamine has made it harder to reunite families once the child is taken. The federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, enacted as babies born to crack users were crowding foster care, requires states to begin terminating parental rights if a child has spent 15 out of 22 months in foster care. It was intended to keep children from languishing in foster homes. But rehabilitation for methamphetamine often takes longer than other drugs, and parents fall behind.
Traci and her sister-in-law, also a foster mother, have taken care of more than 40 children in the past three years, most in the system due to methamphetamine. Traci wonders why there are not more foster and adoptive parents willing to step up.
"I don't think people realize right here in the United States how many kids are available for adoption. They're always looking outside the states, thinking there is no hope, how can they adopt. But there are really a lot of kids available to adopt," she said.
With the severe shortage of foster homes in Salem, local leaders came together to issue their own call to action. Businessman Dick Withnell led the charge, inviting religious leaders to a breakfast meeting last fall.
"We brought together the faith community and we made an ask: Will you provide additional foster care homes?" said Withnell. "The ask was for an additional 75 homes, but the ask was actually for an additional 250."
As a result, the Salem Alliance Church, which serves nearly 3,000 people, got involved.
"If a community doesn't care about their children, we don't deserve to be called a community," said John Stumbo, the church's head pastor. "If a neighborhood doesn't care about their children, we're not a neighborhood. And if a church doesn't care about the children or the neighborhood, what are we calling ourselves a church for? That's not a church of Christ."
In the past few months, the church has recruited and helped train the 75 new foster families from its pews, and said they would have 100 by summer. It is making a difference in one community where meth has taken its toll.
"It's pretty easy to have the excuse that it's the government's problem. Let the government take care of it. Even churches can use that line," said Stumbo. "That was something that the mainline churches did, and we as evangelical churches avoided that for decades.
"But there is a new movement that is rapidly growing among evangelical churches that we must bring the love of Christ in tangible, practical ways to our cities. We must care about human need wherever it's expressed. To only care about the soul and not care about the body is is an oxymoron of sorts. It's a contradiction."