(TACOMA, Wash.) -- Jim Gosciniak, a contractor from Lakewood, has seen what happens inside a house used to manufacture the toxic brew known as methamphetamine.
Called in to remodel former meth labs, Gosciniak has seen the signs of the chaos and filth illegal drug-use creates: needles strewn across the floor, doors ripped off hinges, dog feces piled up.
He's also thought about the kids who grow up in these environments and what happens to them when their parents are arrested.
Gosciniak and his wife, Tina, who are licensed foster parents, recently welcomed into their home three children who were removed from a home raided by police as a suspected drug lab. Two children stayed with the Gosciniaks a short time, then were placed with relatives out of state. A third - who turned out to be a neighbor of the children whose parents were arrested - returned home.
A coalition of state and private social service agencies is hoping more foster parents can be
recruited to join the Gosciniaks. The efforts are spearheaded by the Greater Pierce County Community Network and Families for Kids Recruitment Resources. They are joined by the state Children's Protective Services, three private children's agencies and medical and law enforcement officials. Together, they're known as the Meth Foster Family Response team.
The goal is to recruit at least 100 new foster homes in Tacoma and Pierce County - communities that have unfortunately become equated with meth lab problems.
In 1999, 40 percent of the state's meth labs were found in Pierce County. The Pierce County Sheriff's Department worked on 137 labs last year, while the Tacoma Police Department responded to 131 cases involving meth labs. According to the Meth Foster Family Response Team, law enforcement officials are predicting 1,000 meth lab raids within the next year - with more than half the cases involving homes with children.
Methamphetamine - meth for short - is a high-potency stimulant manufactured from cold-remedy tablets and other common, inexpensive household materials. It is powerfully addicting, with some experts saying just one try is enough to create a meth addict.
The process of manufacturing, or cooking, the drug creates highly toxic byproducts that, when uncovered by police, must be carefully removed by crews protected by so-called "moon suits."
Children growing up in these environments suffer twofold, say children's advocates. Not only are they often the victims of abuse or neglect by drug-using parents, they are also exposed to the chemical hazards that come from manufacturing meth.
Helen Myrick, executive director of the Greater Pierce County Community Network, describes some of the problems: "These children are exposed to all the horrible hazards and risks of living in a drug house. In addition, there is the possibility of respiratory problems or chemical burns, along with all the other risks of guns and drugs."
Because parents who operate drug labs are secretive, their children are often kept isolated, she said. Parents may mix their toxic drugs in the bathtub, then
later use it to bathe their child. Food, even the children's toys, can be contaminated by drug manufacturing. Because meth can create highs that last for days, infants and toddlers of users may be left in their cribs for days with no care at all.
"I've been in the field for 25 years, and these are some of the absolute worst conditions I've seen," Myrick said.
When their parents are arrested, the children's world turns upside down.
In some situations where contamination is widespread, children's clothes may need to be removed and they may need to undergo decontamination by firefighters and hazardous materials teams.
Depending on the amount of contamination discovered in the home, the children can lose everything: clothes, stuffed animals, special blankets, even family photographs. In some cases, their home must be bulldozed.
A new law that took effect in June allows parents convicted of manufacturing meth, or possession of ingredients with intent to manufacture, to receive an added two years of jail time if they commit their crime with a child present. That means more children seeking temporary homes for longer periods, children's advocates predict.
While they acknowledge that recruiting foster parents for all children is a difficult task, they hope Pierce County families will respond to the special circumstances created by the meth epidemic.
"I personally think there's going to be a greater response for this particular need," said Jeff Clare, program manager for foster care at Youth for Christ, one of the private children's agencies that is involved in the response team. "What is happening to these kids is so outrageous."
Sean Maloney of Catholic Community Services wants to challenge Pierce County to come up with a solution for this problem, as it has for others in the past.
"If you don't like this reputation as a meth capital, here's a concrete way you can make a difference," said Maloney, whose agency is also part of the response team. "Here are kids who have been subjected to some pretty negative stuff. One thing that can make a difference is having adults who care about them and give them what they need."
Gateways for Youth and Families, founded 111 years ago as the Children's Industrial Home, is the third agency training foster parents for the response team effort.
Dawn Cooper, the area administrator for Children's Protective Services, said current foster parents are often the best recruiters of new foster parents.
Tina Gosciniak said receiving foster children into her home hasn't meant big adjustments: "They came, and it felt like they've always been here."
"It's a lot more rewarding than we thought it would be," her husband said of their foster-parenting experience. "It's not a sacrifice at all. We get back a lot more than we give."
* Foster parents can be single or married, must be self-supporting, emotionally stable and mature and able to pass a criminal background check. To learn more about how to become a foster parent, call Families for Kids Recruitment Resources at 1-888-794-1794.
(iSyndicate; The News Tribune; Nov. 13, 2000). Terms and Conditions: Copyright(c) 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.