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Children are the unintended victims of meth
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Children are the unintended victims of meth. This child was born with the highest doses of meth in his system ever seen in Anoka County, Minnesota. (MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)
There are children in Minnesota who live where meth is made. There are children whose parents use methamphetamine. In fact, when adults are arrested for using or making meth, one-third of them are the parents of small children. In one Minnesota county, there is a baby born addicted to meth every week. These are the unintended victims. The people who take care of these children feel overwhelmed. But there isn't enough data to attract the attention of policy-makers.

Anoka County, Minn. — If meth is a snapshot, there are lots of angles. The wide-angle view shows how little we really know about the drug and the problem. Zoom in and you see a system trying to keep up. The closeup shows us faces of the children and the people charged with their care. That last image is what this story is really about. But we won't start there. We'll start with Tami Swenson, who may have the best sense of the problem.

"What really stands out is that we're really just starting to track this, and there's just a lot more that we don't know than we do," says Swenson, the data coordinator in the University of Minnesota's Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare.

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Image Foster mom

Overall, foster care placement is declining in Minnesota, with one big exception. The increase in children who need foster care because their parents abuse chemicals has increased dramatically -- by 82 percent over a three-year period.

"We know that this placement is due to parent chemical abuse reasons, but we don't know if it's marijuana or cocaine or heroin, or anything like that," says Swenson.

In counties that have seen an increase in meth arrests, Swenson says they also see an increase in foster care placement.

Children whose parents use or make meth are often neglected. Many are thin and hungry. They can have toxic chemical residue on their skin and toys. Many have respiratory problems. All suffer emotional problems.

Barbara Knox, a pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, says it's too soon to know what long-term effects these children will suffer. Knox says most of the research focuses on babies born addicted to meth. It's a repeat of 20 years ago when the focus was on babies born addicted to crack. And like then, doctors and researchers have more questions than answers.

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Image Meth babies are fussy

Knox says some things are clear. She says if a woman uses meth early in her pregnancy, there's a greater chance the baby will experience brain damage or even pre-birth strokes.

"These children were starting to have neurological damage, and some damage to their organs as well as to the respiratory system," says Knox.

Dr. Knox says most doctors don't know what to look for in newborns. For instance, if an infant's first stool sample is tested, doctors can tell what the mother ingested over the previous six months. But if that first sample is missed, future tests can only verify what the mother took in, over the last 48 hours.

Now, our picture of meth shifts, to a system trying to keep up. Hospitals in one Minnesota county, Anoka, serve as a model. In Anoka County, at least one baby born each week is addicted to meth. In one month, there were as many as 11 babies born with meth in their system.

"It happens left and right," says Jacki Humphrey, a social worker. "We have a lot of pregnant users we're following, that may or may not test positive at birth. But then there's always some we've never heard of until the baby is born."

When a meth baby is born, it is taken away from the mother. The mom isn't charged with a crime, but in order to get her baby back the mother has to get treatment and prove to the court she can stay sober. If she can't, her parental rights are terminated and the baby is placed for adoption.

They don't think they're going to get fed. If electricity goes out because of a storm, they're sure we didn't pay the bill. ... They're used to chaos all the time.
- Foster mother Terri Rehani, on kids from meth homes

In Anoka County, there's a foster mom who knows more about meth than she ever thought she would. Terri Rehani has cared for about 70 foster kids over the last 14 years. She doesn't want to talk about her kids in front of them, so we meet at a downtown office building.

Rehani is known as the meth expert in Anoka County. For years she has rocked babies going through meth withdrawal.

"They're really fussy. They cry a real high-pitched scream and get a wincey look when hurting. They're hard to calm," says Rehani.

She also takes older kids whose parents are arrested for doing meth. Over the years, she says these kids have gotten tougher. They've experienced more in a short lifetime, and often become caregivers for their family members. Rehani says these children have to learn how to be cared for.

"They don't think they're going to get fed. If electricity goes out because of a storm, they're sure we didn't pay the bill. They are surprised when we go shopping when the shelves aren't bare," says Rehani. "Just the calmness, even in our busy household, they don't understand it. They're used to chaos all the time. Sometimes they try to create that chaos."

Right now, Rehani has four foster children in her home -- two sets of siblings whose parents were using meth. Two of the children came to her about a year ago because of medical neglect.

"Their teeth were rotting right out of their mouths. And just after they pulled them, then mom became pregnant and the baby tested positive for meth. Then it all made sense why they were neglected," says Rehani.

Soon these children will learn they can't see their mom anymore. They are being adopted by another family.

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Image Trying to get her kids back

Terri Rehani's two other foster children are a 6-year old girl and her 3-month old brother. Shelene Dumdei is their mom. Her son was born in February addicted to meth.

"I was giving up," says Dumdei. "Didn't know if I could do this with another baby. Didn't know if I was a good mom."

Dumdei says she only used meth at the end of her pregnancy. Her son had the highest levels of meth in his system of any baby born in Anoka County so far. Despite that, doctors expect the baby will develop normally.

Shelene Dumdei may get her kids back -- if she stays sober. A judge ordered her to undergo random drug tests. She's being watched closely, and she knows it. Dumdei has supervised visits with her two children. She's completed a 30-day treatment program, and she has to follow a written sobriety plan.

"Every day I do meditation, I read these awesome little affirmations. I call my sponsor daily. I can't have any boredom. Boredom leads to using," says Dumdei.

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Image Children playing

Dumdei works part time at a furniture store and she's also going to church. She says every minute of every day she fights her addiction. But she thinks she can beat it -- for herself and for her kids.

Foster mom Terri Rehani is hopeful Shelene Dumdei will get her children back. She takes the children to visit their mother. She also keeps Dumdei informed of school activities and medical appointments.

Now for the last image of meth -- a closeup of the people and children.

Terri Rehani's foster home is a safe place. There's a yard filled with bikes and swings and toys. Inside, the dining room has been transformed into a castle. A gray and pink plastic tower lines the wall. There are tubs of toys, books and dolls, which the three older children play with.

The baby has a bottle. He is content to lie on a blanket and watch the other kids play.

This is Terri Rehani's picture of meth. The big picture doesn't really matter to her. The four children in her charge are her focus. But she knows when these children leave, more will come.

While researchers continue to study the long-term effects meth is having on children, social workers, pediatricians and even foster parents are taking care of the children -- one at a time.

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