Sherman, chief of neonatology at UC Davis Medical Center in
Sacramento, holds a baby he believes was born addicted to meth.
Sherman says this child is fortunate because it was not born
with physical deformities.
Bee Photographer- Hector Amezcua
Sue Webber-Brown is an investigator for the Butte County District
Attorney's Office. She also is the founder of the Drug Endangered
Children program (DEC), which has become a national model for similar
When police and socialworkers in other California counties, and
even in other states, wonder why she spends so much energy advocating
for children from meth homes, she shows them. Since she began DEC
in 1991, she has collected photos that tell a terrible tale:
In one Yuba City home, above a tidy bookcase of children's stories,
a brewing pot of meth has overrun its container and dripped brown
stains on the children's nightstand and onto the carpet beside their
bunk beds. An infant is sleeping in a nearby crib.
In an Oroville home where an 8-year-old lives with her mother and
stepfather, there's a jar of meth and acetone in the ice tray in
the freezer. On the spice rack, investigators find a small jar of
iodine crystals. On the floor in front of the sink, drops of iodine
have burned into the linoleum. The girl's parents told her they
were concocting gasoline for their truck. Her parents were wearing
gloves and breathing masks to shield them from fumes, but the girl
had no such protection as she stood in the doorway watching them
make meth in the kitchen sink. She tells a social worker she's had
headaches, a sore throat and a queasy stomach for several weeks
before her parents are arrested and she is taken into protective
In another Butte County home, raw meth sits in a 2-liter Pepsi
bottle in the fridge. A piece of chicken wrapped in tin foil on
a lower shelf tests positive for meth. Three children live in the
Before Webber-Brown came along, narcotics officers would arrest
parents, then look for the nearest adult to baby-sit the children.
Toddlers might be left with a neighbor; babies might go to a grandparent.
Older children might stay with another adult living in the same
drug-infested home. No one checked the children for medical problems
unless they were readily apparent. Rarely did anyone call county
child welfare services.
The mother of three children, Webber-Brown grew weary of the neglect
and started the Drug Endangered Children program. Operated as a
pilot program in seven California counties -- Butte and Shasta are
the only ones in Northern California -- the program teams drug cops
with social workers, doctors and other experts to evaluate and track
children who have been exposed to meth, and provide care for them.
"They just tear at my heart when I see how cute they are,"
says Webber-Brown, whose team has removed more than 620 children
from drug-abusing parents in Butte County since 1993. "I had
one guy tell me, 'You shouldn't get so emotionally involved' . .
.[but] if we all say we have our own lives, our own families, our own
Little League, then who will take care of these children?"
Across California, thousands of children live with meth addicts
behind shuttered windows in homes that often lack electricity, adequate
food or proper plumbing. Many children are too young to understand
the white powdery stuff in baggies. All they know is that Mommy
and Daddy don't want to play.
"The older kids, over 10, will have a general understanding
that there is drug usage in the home," says Marv Stern, Sacramento
County's child-abuse special prosecutor. "But the more likely
description of what life is like is: 'They started getting madder
at me. They wouldn't let me go out and play. They never served food
anymore. People would come over at odd hours. They always kept the
house dark. . . . Why am I being treated this way? Why can't I have
anybody over? Why am I not going to school anymore?' "
These are the children clogging the child welfare system. More
than 120,000 kids in California live in foster homes. In some parts
of the state, social workers estimate that up to 90 percent of their
cases somehow relate to meth. Even officials reluctant to quantify
how much child abuse and neglect may be attributed to meth are willing
to say their highest proportion of serious cases can be directly
linked to it.
"We look at methamphetamine as ancillary to child death and
child abuse," says Sheila Anderson, director of Sacramento
County's Child Abuse Prevention Council, which puts out an annual
report on child abuse and neglect and oversees the county's child-death
The council only recently has started cataloging the drugs involved
in children's deaths, but Anderson says the anecdotal data about
meth are overwhelming. Many of the Valley's highest-profile child
deaths have come at the hands of parents who were high on crank.
"I've heard people say meth makes you violent, but meth doesn't make you violent. But I tell you when you come down, you get real cranky, real tense. When I came off my drugs, I hit Dustin. Maybe I did hit him a little too hard in the mouth."
-- Douglas Haaland Jr. from the Fresno County Jail.
Douglas Haaland Jr.
On Jan. 12, 1999, the body of 4-year-old Dustin Haaland was found
battered and buried in a shallow grave in a vineyard west of Fresno.
Authorities believe he was beaten for months by his father, who
was on parole for abusing Dustin's older brother, Dougie, four years
earlier. Dustin's mother, Kathy Haaland, did nothing to stop her
Instead, she helped her husband bury the boy before the couple
moved in with her sister. Kathy, then 23, was six months pregnant
with the couple's third son.
Douglas Haaland Jr., then 25, had nursed a raging meth habit for
years before landing in prison in 1994 for hurlingDustin's older
brother to the ground in a rage. Dougie went to a foster home. Haaland
went to prison, and Kathy went to jail. Haaland had been using meth
for several months before the assaults on Douglas, according to
a probation report:
"Haaland said he had not slept for eight days because he was
snorting a lot of crank, and he ran out about three days before
his arrest. He said he was very agitated and irritated."
Before he was convicted in 1995 for felony child endangerment,
Haaland wrote a letter to Superior Court Judge Gene Gomes:
I want to start off by telling you that I'm sorry for doing what
I did. I do need help for my drug problem so this or anything else
won't ever happen. I've never been in trouble with the law before.
. . . I'm never going to forgive myself for what I did to my son.
We all make mistakes, and I made the biggest of all . . .
Douglas Arthur Haaland
Nearly three years later, and two months after he was released
from Corcoran State Prison, Haaland ran into a friend who had some
meth. Haaland was hooked again.
Five months later, Dustin's body was found. Authorities believe
the boy had been killed weeks earlier, and his parents convinced
family members the child was visiting relatives during the 1998
Christmas season. Dustin's mother pleaded guilty to child endangerment
and testified against his father, who contended he was not guilty.
On July 13, a jury convicted him of second-degree murder in the
death of Dustin, and he was sentenced to 44 years to life in prison.
When Amber Walker died in her crib of starvation and dehydration,
her tiny body was literally used up. "Particularly noteworthy,"
states the 1996 autopsy report, was "increased wrinkling of
the lower buttocks consistent with the depletion of fat."
The skeletal 3-month-old weighed 5 pounds when she died, less than
a pound above her birth weight. Amber was discovered lying wide-eyed
and motionless by her mother, Theresa Walker, in the motel room
they called home on Bakersfield's run-down Union Avenue.
Despite the volumes of tears she shed for her baby after Amber's
death, family members said, the meth-addicted mother often left
the infant in soiled diapers and rarely touched her. The woman's
mother told reporters Walker had struggled with meth addiction since
she was 14, about the same time she got pregnant with the first
of her eight children. One earlier baby died of Sudden Infant Death
Syndrome (SIDS), also at 3 months of age.
Walker's three oldest children were living with their grandmother
when Amber died. But a 4-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy lived
with their mother, Amber and Amber's twin, Adam. Neighbors said
the 4-year-old often dressed and fed her younger brother and that
both suffered from head lice that went untreated.
Theresa Walker was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 1996
and sentenced to three years in prison.
Alexia Real was just 5 years old when her mother and stepfather,
delusional from their meth addiction, decided they must rid Alexia
and her 13-year-old sister of the "demons and vampires"
that inhabited their souls. For eight straight days in the summer
of 1997, Barbara Carrasco, for three meals a day, blended a special
milk shake for her daughters: Clorox bleach, vanilla ice cream,
garlic and other spices.
"It was horrible. It tasted chalky," the elder sister
testified later at her stepfather's murder trial.
On the eighth day, the teen emerged from her bedroom in Elk Grove,
a Sacramento suburb, and saw Alexia lying motionless in the hallway.
Her mother was trying to resuscitate her. The next time the teen
saw her sister, Alexia's body had been dismembered with a pruning
saw and her mother was giving instructions on what to say if anyone
Then, the girl told authorities later, Barbara and Larry Carrasco
burned Alexia's body in the family's fireplace and dumped her ashes
and the tools used to dismember her into the Sacramento River. Terrified
and confused, the 13-year-old said nothing for months until one
fall morning when she appeared at school with chemical burns on
her arms, back and hips. She had been doused with bleach by her
stepfather in another attempt to rid her of demons. When detectives
grew curious about her missing sister, the story emerged.
Larry Carrasco, a former bus driver in Sacramento, was convicted
and sentenced to 40 years to life in prison. Barbara Carrasco was
sentenced to 15 years to life after a judge ruled she was legally
sane at the time of the murder and that the evidence showed that
she had a longtime "festering, loathing of the child."
Sacramento County prosecutor Marv Stern, who helped send the Carrascos
to prison, says the combination of methamphetamine and parenting
is as sinister as anything he's ever seen.
"If you have a child death case and there's a drug involved,
it's more likely to be meth than any other drug," he says.
"I don't know why, but I can tell you there is a clear link
between parents who abuse meth and physical abuse."
There is no shortage of horror stories. In addition to being victims
of murder, physical abuse and passive neglect, the children of meth
users often are targets for sexual molestation.
At the Child and Family Institute in Sacramento near the University
of California at Davis Medical Center, therapists encourage children
to play in sandboxes or create families out of dolls so they can
teach them how "normal" children interact with adults.
Many never have lived in a family where parents are caretakers and
child's play does not include explicit sexual acts.
Director Sandy Baker says it is common for child molesters to seek
out meth-addicted mothers to date because they can have unsupervised
access to young children: "Many of these kids have been repeatedly
raped. It's happened so many times they just consider it a way of
Baker is a member of Sacramento County's child-death review team
and was instrumental in helping revise a Sacramento Child Protective
Services policy in 1997. Under the old policy, social workers were
instructed to view drug addiction as a "culture" and to
help parents work within that culture to fix family problems without
removing the children. Under the new policy, social workers are
instructed to place meth abuse high on their list of potential dangers
in evaluating whether to remove children.
"When they're not addicted to drugs, they can be caring, decent
parents. That's why it's so confusing to the kids," Baker says.
"But when they're using, their primary relationship is with
the drugs, not with their child."
For these kids, it's day-to-day, sometimes hour-to-hour, survival.
"They haven't got a clue what they're going to be facing when
they get home from school each day," Baker says, "somebody
who wants to exorcise their demons or somebody who says come on
in and do your homework."
And that's when the parents pay any attention to the kids at all.
Neglect is the most common manifestation of meth addiction, welfare
workers say. They describe children who get up before dawn to go
through garbage cans for food or don't go to school because they
have only one set of clothing. In every group of siblings Webber-Brown
has taken from meth-using parents, she says, the eldest child has
assumed the role of parent, ensuring little ones are fed, diapered
and kept quiet around unpredictable adults.
In many homes, children are malnourished. Almost always, they lack
immunizations and medical care. Lice is common. So are fecal-oral
infections, which are transmitted from filthy diapers or animal
feces on the floor to children's fingers.
"They are invisible children," says Baker, the Sacramento
therapist. "And they don't live in any one place long enough
for anyone to take action."
The 5-year-old boy was borderline anemic ... 13 cavities, 6 root canals, 2 extractions. Needed caps on both front and back teeth ... displayed problems with sleeping ... talks excessively and at inappropriate times ... continued to be very stubborn and defiant."
-- From a case file of a child found in a meth lab home
There is little dispute that children who grow up watching their
parents sell and use drugs are more likely to become drug users
themselves. But, with the exception of a few anecdotal studies,
the medical community lacks basic information about the effects
of meth on both unborn children and those exposed passively in their
Among doctors, educators and others who deal with meth-exposed
children, there is growing concern about some specific types of
problems that may result from exposure, such as learning disabilities
they assume are linked to prenatal meth abuse.
"What we see is a syndrome that begins with attention deficit
symptoms, looks like ADHD but begins sooner and is associated with
more aggressiveness," says Dr. Hugo Biertuempfel, a psychiatrist
with Sutter County's Mental Health Department who operates a clinic
While long-term effects are unclear, doctors do know something
about children who appear at emergency rooms after taking high doses
"They are inconsolable," says pediatrician Wendy Wright,
who has treated meth-exposed children at San Diego's Children's
Hospital. "They have high blood pressure, high heart rates
and high enough temperatures to make brain injury a concern. Many
have a type of seizure that is particularly difficult to control
and is resistant to seizure medication."
Wright has a vivid recollection of one boy, between 18 months and
2 years old, who was brought to the emergency room by a family member.
Repeatedly, he traced the same steps: He put his Power Ranger doll
under a pillow, covered it with a blanket and walked to the other
side of the room. Then he came back, picked it up, moved it across
the room and covered it up.
"He did this for hours, and he was sobbing the whole time
because he didn't want to be doing it but he couldn't stop,"
Wright says. "These little guys are miserable. They're high.
The meth has them amped up, and they can't rest, they can't sit
down, they can't calm down."
In Sacramento, Dr. Michael Sherman, chief of neonatology at UC
Davis Medical Center, has established a center for preemies who
are born at less than 26 weeks gestation and weigh less than 2 pounds.
And he has discovered a curious, new menace, unique among the tiniest
Valley residents: "Meth is the drug of abuse for the fetus
in Northern California." He believes that prenatal exposure
to meth, unlike its sister drugs cocaine or PCP, causes serious
and widespread birth defects.
"I have not noticed the occurrence of so many birth defects
with cocaine," he says. "I've seen some really heavy users
of cocaine, and certainly it has vascular effects, but it's not
anywhere near the problem of meth."
Sherman looked at data on 358 mothers of intensive care unit babies
who admitted using illicit drugs or alcohol between 1995 and 1999.
Of that number, 202 babies, or 56 percent, were exposed to meth.
Among them, 108, or 54 percent, were born preterm. Thirty-three
of the 202 had major birth defects -- a rate of roughly 163 per
1,000 live births. The normal rate of birth defects is 30 per 1,000
in California's general population, which would naturally be lower
than that of already-sick babies. Still, the rate appears significant.
"A lot of information needs to come out about this,"
Sherman says. "There are a lot of rat studies, but not what
I would have expected ."