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Methamphetamine use driving an increase in foster care
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Jennifer Sattler is a 23-year-old mother of three. She's been off meth for a year. Her baby, who was born when Sattler was high on meth, is doing fine. (MPR Photo/Bob Reha)
Methamphetamine is taking a toll in Minnesota and it's not just on the people using the drug. The drug destroys addicts, mentally and physically. But the affects of meth on families, especially on their children, are becoming clearer.

Moorhead, Minn. — Jennifer Sattler is 23 years old and the mother of three. Drugs have always been a part of her life.

"I started using drugs when I was ten with my step-father, just marijuana," she says. "Then, I started drinking with my parents, with my mom and my step-dad and all of their friends. On my 14th birthday my mom threw me a keg party."

Jennifer kept using drugs, and eventually started taking meth. She would try to stop on her own, especially when she got pregnant with her first two children. But she always started using meth again. When she became pregnant with her third child, she couldn't stop.

"I was getting high four hours before she was born, so when the doctor told me, I didn't really care," says Sattler. "I was still high. I knew she was going to test positive, it wasn't a big surprise."

But local social service officials got her attention. They served notice Jennifer's baby and her two other children were going to a foster home.

"They took her from me at the hospital because she tested positive for meth," says Sattler. "It was two months after that my husband got busted with meth and we just said that we had enough and I checked myself into treatment."

Situations like Sattler's are becoming too familiar in the Fargo area. Chip Ammerman, manager of the family services department for Cass County Social Services, says in the last five years case workers began to see an increase in meth-related cases.

But it was only a year ago when they created a data base. It shows that of the 180 kids placed in foster care last year, 63 had cases that were meth-related. Ammerman says meth is creating an explosion in foster placements.

"Before, it was one or two percent of the cases, now it's about 25 to 30 percent of the cases we're getting involved in," says Ammerman.

Part of Alonna Norberg's job is seeing the effects of meth on children first hand. She's a pediatrician in Fargo. Norberg sees one or two babies a week, who test positive for meth.

Some of the kids leave a haunting image. She tells about a six-year-old girl, who had been taken from her parents when they were arrested on meth charges.

The little girl lost all her possessions. She was dirty and had burns around her mouth from being too close to the chemicals her parents used in their meth lab.

"But she wasn't crying," Norberg says. "She wasn't crying for her parents, she wasn't crying for her care giver. And I asked her was she ok. And she asked me if she was going to go to a better place to live now."

Medical professionals worry that second-hand exposure to methamphetamine will destroy a babies' health. The problem is, there is no research to confirm that assumption.

Rizwan Shaw, a pediatrician with Blank Children's Hospital in Des Moines Iowa, has been treating the babies of meth moms for 11 years.

Shaw is researching the affects of methamphetamine on babies. The five-year study tracks the development of 200 children whose mothers took the drug during pregnancy, to another group of children whose mothers didn't take the drug.

Shaw says at the midway point of the study, researchers have found that meth babies have problems concentrating and dealing with day-to-day stress. But Shaw says there is encouraging news.

"The majority of kids who were exposed to methamphetamine do not have permanent developmental damage or brain damage," Shaw says.

Shaw hopes the study can identify the amount of methamphetamine exposure that's dangerous to a baby and will create systemic problems for them.

That's a question Jennifer Sattler asks herself each day. The 23-year-old mother of three has been off meth for a year. She and her husband have been in treatment and they have their three children back.

Sattler was angry with social service workers when they took her kids. Now she realizes, the people were only doing their job. She's grateful they intervened and says it saved her life.

Sattler takes her baby to the doctor for regular check-ups now. Her youngest daughter recently had her first birthday. So far that baby, who was born when Sattler was high on meth, is doing fine.

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