'Children have no choice'

May 10, 2007 11:00 pm
This gun was found inside a home where two children, 4-years-old and 6-years old, live. When law enforcement enter homes where adults are using drugs and find children living there, it is not uncommon to find weapons, mounds of trash and drug paraphernalia within the reach of a child's hands. (Photo courtesy of Del Norte County Sheriff's Office).
This gun was found inside a home where two children, 4-years-old and 6-years old, live. When law enforcement enter homes where adults are using drugs and find children living there, it is not uncommon to find weapons, mounds of trash and drug paraphernalia within the reach of a child's hands. (Photo courtesy of Del Norte County Sheriff's Office).

By Nicholas Grube

Triplicate staff writer

On March 13, the Del Norte County Sheriff's Drug Task Force entered a Crescent City home to arrest a woman for an outstanding warrant.

When the deputies entered the home they were greeted by piles of trash, swarms of flies and two young children, one of which, a 1-year-old boy, tested positive for

.

The two people in the house were arrested for possession of a controlled substance, possession of paraphernalia and willful cruelty to a child. The two children were taken into protective custody.

"These children, it's not their fault that they have parents in this culture," Sheriff Dean Wilson said.

"These are the choices that the individual parent is making...They're choosing to do this. The children have no choice."

To combat parental negligence due to drug use and give children a healthy chance, the Sheriff's Office, in conjunction with the Del Norte County Department of Health and Human Services, the District Attorney's Office and Sutter Coast Hospital, began the Drug Endangered Children Protocol in May 2006.

This program is designed to remove children who are exposed to harmful substances and dangerous environments due to their inadvertent immersion in the drug lifestyles of their parents.

"They (the parents) think nothing of exposing or risking their child's health, safety or life...Most parents, they value their child's life above all else. That's not the case here," Wilson said. "It's sad. It truly is sad."

With the Drug Endangered Children program, when law enforcement makes a raid on a drug home and find children living in the house, they contact Deputy Coroner Mike Henderson who leads investigations for Drug Endangered Children.

"Let's look at the kids as the victims here," Henderson said of the program.

Instead of just arresting parents with drug charges, he said, law enforcement will change their mode of investigation and look for signs of neglect or child endangerment, which carry separate, sometimes harsher, consequences.

He said he's seen situations where young children, toddlers even, are crawling around on filthy carpeting with rotten food strewn about. Sometimes he's found syringes, knives and meth-caked spoons well within the range of a child's hands, if not right next to where he or she sleeps. Henderson said he's even seen situations where children answer the phone and the door for their parents because the parents are nervous it might be a cop.

"It's not fair to the kids, because they have to be kids," Henderson said.

Since September, eight children have been removed from these types of situations, four of whom tested positive for having drugs in their system. Eight arrests were made, with four convictions and four cases pending.

But Henderson says this is just the beginning.

"We haven't even started to scratch the surface," he said. "It's everywhere."

Crystal Markytan is the child welfare supervisor for the Department of Health and Human Services, and she agrees that the this a prevalent problem in the community, if not the nation. When a child is removed from a home, she takes that child into protective custody and tries to find a safe environment while the parents are in custody or in treatment programs.

"I've seen some really bad places...places where there's just trash everywhere in the home...every space on the floor is just covered with trash...rotting food...dishes...flies are everywhere," Markytan said. "I've seen drugs and drug paraphernalia where kids can access it."

She said these kids are neglected in other ways because nobody is taking care of them.

"Just think about how these kids really have to parent themselves because nobody's meeting their basic needs," Markytan said, noting that many kids are feeding and clothing themselves in addition to missing school.

"Their basic needs are not being met...their emotional needs are not being met, their educational needs are being minimally met – it's sad," she said.

But according to Markytan, the main goal of the Drug Endangered Children program is not to take children away from their families indefinitely.

"This is really hard on kids to be taken out of their homes," she said. "Kids are devastated regardless of how horrible the environment might appear to an outsider. It is still a devastating process to that child."

She said the goal is to reunite children with their parents.

"The mandate for us is to reunify the child with the parent," Markytan said. "What we want to see the family do is get into a treatment program."

However, this is sometimes difficult for parents to follow through with, she said, because of addiction and the complicated processes involved with going through the child welfare services system.

But ultimately, she said, it's up to the parents to turn their lives around and give their children a better life.

"Here's what it comes down to: Are they at a place in their lives where they're able to make a decision to quit that lifestyle and decide to be a parent, or not," she said. "It really is about making a choice."

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Foster care needed or removed youth

Though the Drug Endangered Children Protocol removes children from hazardous environments, it still has its drawback.

In particular, the increase in seized children has created a shortage in foster-home care.

"We get these kids and if we don't have any of the places to put them, they program stalls out," Deputy Coroner Mike Henderson said. "We do need help from the community."

Crystal Markytan, child welfare supervisor for the Department of Health and Human Services, said she is looking for people who are willing to help these children find good homes.

"We need to recruit foster homes because of the Drug Endangered Children program, because we've done more placement since the inception of Drug Endangered Children (program)," she said. "They (foster parents) really are providing a community service...They really are benefitting the whole community when they take these kids home."

To become a foster parent, contact Amber Davis, the Department of Health and Human Services' foster care licensing worker, at 707-464-3191 extension 274.

Drug Endangered Children by the numbers

All numbers are from September 2006 to present.

•8: Number of children removed from homes since

•4: Children who tested positive for drugs in their system (3 of 4 had methamphetamine in their system)

•8: Arrests associated with the Drug Endangered Children Protocol

•4: Convictions of parents

•4: Cases pending in Del Norte County Superior Court

SOURCE: Del Norte County Sheriff's Office