By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Teddy bears are the latest tool used in drug busts, and the Tri-Agency Task Force has them. The task force, a six-county drug enforcement agency headquartered in Havre, is responsible for making major drug arrests in the area.
At a workshop last month, three members of the Havre Police Department and an area social worker learned how to help children who are found when law enforcement officers raid home-based methamphetamine labs. Police also learned how to conduct investigations that will bring criminal endangerment and child abuse charges against those parents.
The workshop teaches law enforcement, medical staff, social workers and prosecutors to work together on meth busts, rather than dealing with drug crimes and displaced children as separate problems.
Havre Assistant Police Chief George Tate attended the training. One fact that stuck with him, he said, is that if you ask a small child whose parents cook meth, "Who fed you today?" the child will often answer: "I fed myself." If you ask, "Who clothed you today?" the child will answer: "I clothed myself."
The focus on children in meth cases began in California in the 1980s, said Ron Mullins, a training coordinator for the National Drug Endangered Children Alliance, which sponsored the workshop. In 1999, seven counties in California received grants to enhance services for drug-endangered children, he said. Those have been a model for counties across the country.
"If you find those children, protect them and shelter them, they won't grow up to be your future drug users," he said.
Mullins tailors his workshops to each area he visits. California has special child endangerment laws for drug cases. Montana does not have such laws. In fact, it doesn't have criminal child abuse laws.
"Montana's a little deficient in that regard," said Wendy Segall, deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County. Segall helps Mullins conduct training, and came to Helena to inform people about how to work with the laws Montana does have.
The crime of operating a drug lab carries a harsher penalty in Montana than in California, Segall said, a maximum of 50 years in prison. One of the factors that qualify for the maximum felony drug sentence is if there were any minors in the home where the drugs were produced, she said.
While Montana doesn't have criminal child abuse laws, a parent could be charged with criminal endangerment for keeping drugs within reach of a child or cooking meth in the home of a child, said Jennifer Clark, deputy county attorney for Missoula County.
Montana does have civil child abuse laws.
Tate learned how to make a meth bust easier on children, including arresting the parents out of sight of the children, bringing toys for the children, and describing the decontamination showers as a chance to go camping. People who are removed from a meth lab must be decontaminated in a tent so they don't spread harmful chemicals. The effort is to make this less frightening for children, he said.
"Make it less of a forced issue," Tate said.
It's also important to have the children tested for meth very quickly, he said. Children found in the home will test positive for use of meth because of its presence in the air and on surfaces.
Generally there is no specific treatment for the children, but the fact that they test positive can be used as evidence in the case against the parents.
Tate said that when investigating, police should measure the distance to the ground from any places where drugs are found. If those locations turn out to be within the reach of any children in the home, the police have even more evidence of criminal endangerment.
Once the job of the police is finished, the social workers must help find resources that will help the child recover from abuse and neglect. Children in meth labs often suffer physical ailments, including malnutrition, poor hygiene and respiratory problems. They need dental, medical, and psychological attention, Mullins said.
Sheila Dugdale, a community social worker for Hill and Blaine counties, attended the workshop. "What it comes to is more of a collaboration between entities," she said. "The doctors, ER staff, police and us. It's all designed to help us all work together."
The work of police and medical personnel in providing evidence for criminal endangerment charges can help the social service workers do their job, Dugdale said. Charges specifically related to child safety allows the court to keep social workers involved with the family over time.
"When we have no court action on the family, we really don't have a lot of things we can do legally," she said.
Mullins said police across the country have found that child abuse charges will often carry more prison time and harsher punishments than drug crimes. He said prosecutors are not always accustomed to emphasizing child abuse in drug cases, but he said that is a better service to society.
He noted that prosecutors sometimes drop the child endangerment charges while making plea agreements with drug defendants.
"If they are bargaining away child abuse crimes, shame on them," he said.
Shane Haberlock, who heads the Tri-Agency Task Force, said pursuing criminal endangerment charges against meth manufacturers who are parents is already a priority, but he said he hopes more officers will be able to get similar training. The task force will send one of the trained officers to any raid where children are present, he said.
Havre police Lt. Russ Ostwalt and officer Cathy Huston also attended the workshop. Huston is the Police Department's sole female officer and is often brought in to assist in cases involving small children. Until recently, Ostwalt was the Havre police officer assigned to the task force.
The training was meant to give officers tools for taking in the bigger picture, Tate said. It also was meant to encourage law enforcement and social service workers to cooperate.
Once charges are prosecuted, Dugdale said, the children can face long-term problems.
"We learned that parents who do meth, because of the paranoia side, might see their child as the devil" and beat their child, she said.
She said that because meth increases sexual activity, the child might suffer sexual abuse. Also, the child might be left with strangers.
Local social workers "are starting to see more and more drug cases, but it's kind of varied," she said. Community social service workers see fewer cases dealing with meth than other drugs.
Following the alliance's recommendations should not take extra money, and is equally possible in rural counties, Mullins said.
"You work with what you have, and you build those relationships within your community," he said. "It doesn't take a huge grant."
To report child abuse in Montana, call, toll-free: (866) 820-5437. The service for the hearing impaired is: (866) 341-8811. The child abuse hotline will not to release the name of any caller.