|A Healing Family.
Reunited after both parents—Kirsten (far left)
and John (far right)—recovered from methamphetamine
abuse, the entire Smyrni family traveled to the recent
conference in Washington, DC, to tell their story
of healing and hope. The Smyrni children include
(l to r) Lee, Zane, little Alex, Sophia, Quinn, and
When Kirsten Smyrni first started using methamphetamine,
it seemed like a wonder drug. The burst of productivity
the drug provided helped her get more done in her roles
as a chef and as the mother of five children. But that
new power quickly proved illusory. By the time she hit
bottom, she had lost her children, job, and home.
"This is a family disease," explained Ms.
Smyrni, who was reunited with her children after she
and her husband underwent substance abuse treatment.
"People—and that includes my children—can
count on me today."
According to SAMHSA's National Survey on Drug Use and
Health, 1.4 million Americans age 12 and older in 2004
had used methamphetamine in the past year. But those
methamphetamine users aren't just putting themselves
at risk for physical and psychological problems like
memory loss, psychosis, tremors, and hallucinations.
If they're parents, they're also putting their children
at risk of neglect and abuse.
Ensuring the safety of those children has become a priority
SAMHSA's Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT),
along with the Administration for Children, Youth, and
Families' Children's Bureau, funds the National Center
on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare (NCSACW). And in
May, the two agencies cosponsored a conference—"Methamphetamine:
The Child Welfare Impact and Response"—that
brought together representatives from the treatment,
child welfare, and law enforcement fields as well as
Ms. Smyrni and her family and others directly affected
"We acknowledge the impact this drug has on our
families, specifically the long-term effects it has on
our children," said CSAT Director H. Westley Clark,
M.D., J.D., M.P.H. "We at SAMHSA have been closely
monitoring and responding to the growing impact methamphetamine
is having in our communities."
Back to Top
Like other kinds of substance abuse, methamphetamine
use by parents puts children at risk.
Problems can begin even before birth, noted NCSACW Director
Nancy K. Young, M.S.W., Ph.D. Dr. Young also directs
Children and Family Futures, the nonprofit organization
that operates the center.
|Dr. Nancy K. Young,
of the SAMHSA-funded National Center on Substance
Abuse and Child Welfare, and Dr. H. Westley Clark,
Director of SAMHSA's Center for Substance Abuse Treatment,
presented recent data.
Prenatal exposure to methamphetamine can result in premature
birth, birth defects, and low birth weight in the short
term and learning disabilities, developmental disorders,
and cognitive deficits in the long term, said Dr. Young.
Parents under the influence of methamphetamine are also
likely to parent poorly, said Dr. Young, noting that
methamphetamine use can result in poor judgment, confusion,
irritability, and paranoia. Risks to children's health
and well-being include inadequate supervision, inconsistent
parenting, chaotic home lives, households without basics
like food or utilities, lack of medical care, and abuse.
"Chronic neglect is what brings most kids to the
attention of the child welfare system," explained
Parents who manufacture methamphetamine create additional
risks for their children. Even "cooking" small
quantities of the drug can expose children to dangerous
chemicals, toxic fumes, and fires and explosions, explained
Dr. Young, noting that children's higher metabolic rates
and developing bodies put them at higher risk than adults.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice National
Drug Intelligence Center, there were 2,028 known cases
of children present at seized methamphetamine laboratory
sites in 2001. Of those, approximately 35 percent of
the children tested positive for toxic levels of chemicals
in their bodies.
If parents are selling methamphetamine, said Dr. Young,
add the presence of weapons, the possibility of violence,
the presence of strangers in the household, and the threat
of incarceration to the list of dangers.
Back to Top
|According to Cheryl
J. Gallagher, a CSAT public health advisor, and Sharon
Amatetti, a CSAT senior public health analyst, SAMHSA
has had success treating parents with methamphetamine
problems and reunifying them with their children.
Like the Smyrnis, parents who use methamphetamine can
lose their children to foster care or even permanent
Fortunately, treatment for methamphetamine abuse works.
"We're having good success treating people with
methamphetamine problems, and children are being reunified
with parents as a result," said Cheryl J. Gallagher,
M.A., a public health advisor at CSAT.
A treatment approach known as the Matrix Model—which
relies on intensive cognitive behavioral therapy, family
education, counseling, social support groups, and drug
testing in outpatient settings—seems to work especially
A CSAT-funded study of nearly 1,000 methamphetamine
users from 1999 to 2001—the largest randomized
clinical trial of treatment for methamphetamine dependence—found
that patients undergoing Matrix treatment attended more
sessions, stayed in treatment longer, and had more drug-free
urine samples during treatment than clients in the "treatment
as usual" study group.
That "larger dose of treatment" is especially
important for methamphetamine users, explained Ms. Gallagher,
because the damage caused by methamphetamine takes longer
to heal than that caused by other drugs.
But for parents to get the treatment they need, the
substance abuse, child welfare, and law enforcement communities
all need to work together. And that hasn't always happened.
Law enforcement personnel, for example, may not be aware
just how effective treatment is.
"Many don't think methamphetamine users can get
well," said Ms. Gallagher. "But we're having
exactly the same kind of results—59- to 69-percent
success rates—with methamphetamine users going
through treatment and getting into recovery as we do
with other drugs."
Collaboration has become especially important since
the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, said Sharon
Amatetti, M.P.H., a senior public health analyst at CSAT.
The law speeds up the timeline for making decisions about
whether children should be reunified with their parents
or be put in permanent foster care or adoption, making
it imperative to get parents into treatment as quickly
NCSACW aims to educate each field about the others.
"There's still a lot of stigma about addiction and
myths about the effectiveness of treatment, and child
welfare workers sometimes feel it's hopeless," said
Ms. Amatetti. "Through communication and collaboration,
the child welfare field learns that's not necessarily
true." Similarly, those in the treatment field need
to know about the child welfare system and the pressures
and rules child welfare workers face. Law enforcement
and court personnel need to learn about both fields.
The center's resources and technical assistance can
help. One free online curriculum teaches child welfare
workers about addiction and treatment, for instance,
and another teaches addiction professionals about child
welfare. "To date, more than 5,000 people have completed
these online trainings," said Ms. Amatetti.
For more information, visit the NCSACW Web site at www.ncsacw.samhsa.gov.
The site includes a list of methamphetamine-related resources
Note: Photos by Meredith Hogan Pond for SAMHSA
« See Also—Previous Article
Back to Top