Printer Friendly

Drug labs and endangered children.

Drugs, guns, and money - the usual seizures by law enforcement officers during a raid on a suspected methamphetamine producer - are being joined by a new and, sadly, ever-increasing phenomenon, the children left behind when officers arrest their parents for illegally manufacturing or using this drug. More often than not, officers end up changing dirty diapers, comforting screaming babies, and entertaining these children for hours.

Officers in San Diego, California, understand this scenario all too well. Because of the high rate of methamphetamine use and production, San Diego held the title of the Methamphetamine Capital for several years. From 1988 to 1995, county-funded drug treatment programs reported an increase of more than 500 percent in cases where methamphetamine was reported as the primary drug problem. In 1996, methamphetamine-related arrests totaled 5,218. Tragically, an estimated 20 percent of these cases had children associated with them. Also, methamphetamine manufacturing labs ranged in operation from large multilayered organizations to small "mom and pop" shops producing the drug on kitchen stoves.

Local government, law enforcement, and community groups have worked hard to change San Diego's unfortunate but deserved reputation. Recently, however, methamphetamine use and production have spread rapidly, not only within the entire state but throughout the nation, as well.


The methamphetamine production process involves three basic stages. First, the cooking stage where the chemicals ephedrine, hydriodic acid, and red phosphorous are mixed and heated at various stages for about 12 hours and then strained to remove the red phosphorous, which is not water soluble and is fatal in large doses. Then, the extraction stage involves adding sodium hydroxide to covert the acidic mixture to a basic one and then adding Freon to extract the methamphetamine from the base. Finally, the salting or drying stage includes adding hydrogen chloride gas to the mixture to convert it from an oil into a crystalline powder. All of the stages involve highly flammable and toxic substances.(1)

The danger to children becomes obvious when a methamphetamine lab explodes, killing or injuring them, or when authorities discover neglected children as a result of their parents' methamphetamine use. However, chemical burns and exposure to hazardous chemicals and deadly gases represent some of the more insidious and overlooked injuries caused by living in a methamphetamine lab environment. For example, authorities have found babies crawling on carpets where toxic chemicals used to make methamphetamine have spilled. They have seen children cooking their own meals in the same microwave ovens that their parents used to produce methamphetamine. Also, they have discovered chemicals used in methamphetamine production stored in open or improperly sealed containers in areas where children played. These chemicals emit hazardous fumes toxic enough to burn lungs; damage the brain, kidneys, and liver; or even kill these children. In a recent case, two boys received second-degree chemical burns on their arms when they fell off their bikes onto a patch of dirt in their backyard. Police officers discovered that their parents had dumped leftover waste from their methamphetamine production in the yard.

What can be done to protect these children? The available options do not always provide these children with the safest alternatives. For example, leaving the children with a neighbor or family member may prove risky because such individuals may not possess the ability to care for a child. Also, calling child protective services may result in lengthy delays because these agencies often are overworked and poorly equipped to handle emergency situations. Therefore, in many instances, children return time and again to their unsafe, unstable homes because of the lack of available intervention resources. Further, often stymied in their attempts to get the children to a safe environment, police officers cannot focus on their primary missions of gathering evidence, putting offenders in jail, and preparing these cases for prosecution. Both kids and officers get caught in the middle of parental drug use and profiteering.


For years, the concept of children as victims of the methamphetamine epidemic remained unknown. However, in 1995, the issue gained national attention when a Riverside County methamphetamine lab exploded, killing three small children. Their mother received a conviction of second-degree murder and appealed the verdict. In March 1998, the Fourth District Court of Appeals ruled that manufacturing methamphetamine is an inherently dangerous felony for the purpose of the second-degree felony-murder rule.(2) This case sparked state legislation that added prison enhancements for the presence of children at methamphetamine labs. As of January 1998, defendants found guilty of manufacturing methamphetamine in the presence of children under 16 face a 2-year prison enhancement. The methamphetamine producer can expect an additional 5-year penalty enhancement when a child is injured as a result of the methamphetamine production process.

The Drug Endangered Children Program

In conjunction with strengthening state law, California awarded grants to four counties (San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, and Orange) to identify issues, establish protocol, and implement a multidisciplinary approach to protecting children victimized by exposure to methamphetamine manufacturing. In each county, the district attorney's office developed a program employing the skills, knowledge, and experience of individuals from law enforcement, health care, and social services.

Program Description

In San Diego County, the district attorney's office used the successful Jurisdictions Unified for Drug/Gang Enforcement (JUDGE) program as an umbrella organization and model to launch the Drug Endangered Children (DEC) program in January 1998.3 Besides fostering greater cooperation and coordination between social services and law enforcement, DEC studies and documents the environmental hazards that children are exposed to in these methamphetamine "kitchens of death." Health care workers establish the medical procedures and document the testing of these children. Prosecutors then use this information to add child endangerment charges and new penalty enhancements targeting methamphetamine manufacturers.

After reviewing area drug statistics, the San Diego district attorney decided that North San Diego County represented the logical place to implement the program. Over the past 2 years, 90 percent of methamphetamine lab seizures

occurred in North County. In 1997 alone, police discovered 62 methamphetamine labs, and 40 percent of these had children present or living at the site.(4) In one case, a mother and her boyfriend were cooking methamphetamine in their apartment's only bathroom when the substance ignited. Fortunately, the mother and her 2-year-old son escaped the fire without injury. Her boyfriend also fled the scene, but officers later captured and identified him by the bums on his arms.

Coordinated Efforts

In the past, police officers who encountered children in a methamphetamine lab environment attempted to contact the Children's Services Bureau to remove the children. However, the officers either had to transport the children to a facility or find someone who could care for them. In these situations, even when social workers responded, no specific procedures existed. Often, the children did not receive proper medical testing, examinations, or interviews. Unfortunately, lack of communication and sometimes-unclear jurisdictional parameters existed among law enforcement, social services, and health care providers.

Under DEC, however, social workers and health care providers have joined police officers in helping children involved in methamphetamine arrests. Social workers can respond to the scene and transport children exposed to toxic chemicals to the proper medical facility. Health care providers have created guidelines so that children found in methamphetamine lab environments will receive all of the necessary testing and treatment procedures. Also, once medical authorities have verified that these children have been exposed to methamphetamine and the toxins [TABULAR DATA OMITTED] associated with its production, they track the children's progress to ensure their continued health and safety.

Additionally, before DEC started, concern for children living or present at the site of a methamphetamine lab did not represent a prosecutorial priority. Usually, police officers would note the extremely poor living conditions when they arrested the parents but seldom documented these circumstances, unless they did so accidentally in photographs of the lab site.

Now, as part of DEC, officers complete forms that describe the conditions and hazards present in the home or at the lab site. The forms also direct officers to interview children and collect evidence for endangerment prosecution. Moreover, the deputy district attorney assigned to the team can assist police officers in their investigations and prosecute these cases, including child endangerment charges if warranted.

Program Results

Local police officers in San Diego County have responded favorably to the team concept of DEC. The program allows officers and social workers to use their collective experience to work together on a joint mission - removing children from dangerous environments. At the same time, it permits officers to concentrate most of their efforts on the critical law enforcement matters associated with these incidents. A recent DEC case involving a methamphetamine-producing parole violator illustrates how some officers feel about this program. When deputies arrived at the residence, they found two small children running around a filthy house littered with old food and dirty diapers. In a back bedroom, they discovered a crying 6-month-old baby obviously in desperate need of a diaper change. One deputy stopped the baby's crying by changing her diaper and then picking her up and comforting her. While waiting for a social worker to arrive, another deputy took the handcuffs off the baby's mother so she could care for her baby. However, when the deputy placed the baby in her mother's lap, the baby began crying, and the mother had no idea how to comfort her. The deputy picked up the baby again, and she immediately calmed down. The deputy later said that the baby seemed to know that the police were there to help her. Another deputy noted that helping a little child made his job worthwhile.


Methamphetamine manufacturing has added a new casualty to its long list of victims caught in the morass of drug abuse. In increasing numbers, children of methamphetamine producers have become victimized by their parents' illegal manufacture and use of this substance. These parents neglect their children's development and place them in hazardous living conditions that can cause serious health problems, even death.

Law enforcement officers have found it increasingly difficult to find safe havens for these children left behind by their parents' arrest. The San Diego District Attorney's Office brought together the necessary resources to design and implement a solution. By coordinating the efforts of law enforcement, health care, and social services under one centralized program, the Drug Endangered Children program has helped to handle this sad but mushrooming situation. Agencies responsible for the public's safety may want to consider developing similar programs for the children of arrested methamphetamine users and producers before their communities face the same crisis.


1 U.S. Department of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center, Hazards of D-Methamphetamine Production, June 1995.

2 People v. James, 62 Cal. App. 4th 244 (1998).

3 Formed in 1987, JUDGE uses a multijurisdictional approach to target gangs and drug dealers. Because of the high volume of methamphetamine trafficking and lab cases prosecuted, JUDGE proved the logical organization to implement the DEC program.

4 Statistics compiled by DEA South West Regional Lab and California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, San Diego Office.

Mr. Manning serves as a deputy district attorney assigned to the North County Jurisdictions Unified for Drug/Gang Enforcement Unit in San Diego, California.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:children of methamphetamine makers
Author:Manning, Tom
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jul 1, 1999
Previous Article:Operation Linebacker: using status offenses to reduce crimes in communities.
Next Article:Crime in the Digital Age: Controlling Telecommunications and Cyberspace Illegalities.

Related Articles
Clandestine Drug Labs.
Drug-endangered children.
New effort targeting meth cooks.
Oregon senators join fight on meth.
For children of meth users, festival brings a little hope.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters