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Rescued from danger

Many children are traumatized, frightened and cautious when they enter counselor Lucy DePaolo’s Spokane office.

They’ve been taken from homes where drugs were used or manufactured, and they were referred to counseling as part of the Drug Endangered Children program.

Spokane County and the state of Idaho launched DEC programs in recent years to help children from drug homes. Participants include law enforcement, social workers, prosecutors, corrections officials, educators, health care providers and community child advocates.

Last year alone, Spokane and Kootenai county authorities removed about 150 children from drug houses.

There are a lot of similarities among the children, said DePaolo, a counselor with Lutheran Community Services.

No matter the cause, being taken away from their parents is stressful, she said. It’s the only life they know.

“A couple kids who came in were so frightened they were hiding under tables,” DePaolo said. “They were hiding under chairs. They can’t look anyone in the eye. We try to make sure they understand it’s not their fault. Creating safety and building trust are our first steps.”

Counselors with Lutheran Community Services have worked with 131 of more than 400 children who have been pulled from drug houses since the program began in Spokane in 2003, said Dan Fox, clinical manager of the organization’s sexual assault and family trauma unit. Other agencies, including Partners with Families and Children, have assisted in counseling the remaining children in need of mental health services.

Having a coordinated program allows children to be “connected to all the social services as quickly as can be established,” Fox said. “The longer you wait the more damage is done. Intervention that happens quickly allows the child to heal.”

Under the DEC program, any of the involved agencies can identify a child as drug-endangered. That agency then communicates with the others to expedite the process of getting the child assessed medically, emotionally and developmentally and into a stable home.

The concept of the drug-endangered program was developed in Riverside County, Calif., because information was not being shared among agencies before planned arrests.

There was a lack of cohesiveness in the delivery of social services to children after they were removed from their homes, and crime scenes were not being investigated for child abuse, which made it harder for prosecutors to pursue charges of child endangerment, said Karen Winston, a DEC coordinator and child interviewer with Partners with Families and Children: Spokane.

Before the launch of DEC in Spokane “we were aware of situations where law enforcement didn’t contact us,” said Geri Phillips, an intake supervisor with Washington’s Child Protective Services. Conversely, “we didn’t always involve them in situations where we could have.”

Sacred Heart Medical Center used the DEC program last year to help a child who was admitted to the hospital after ingesting methamphetamines left by his mother and father. Police investigated, both parents were arrested, and the child was taken into protective custody.

The help that DEC gave that young child, and more than 400 others, is how Spokane County has measured the group’s success, Winston said. Spokane’s DEC program helps 15 to 20 children per month on average, officials said.

Since the start of Idaho’s program in 2002, there have been 178 DEC investigations that resulted in 91 children being removed from their homes, said Idaho State Police Maj. David Kane, who oversees statewide investigations.

Most DEC programs are introduced by law enforcement agencies in response to the meth epidemic. Idaho’s DEC program is one of a few that are statewide.

“The advantage is everyone is using the same protocol to remove children from a (drug) home,” Kane said.

Spokane, Thurston and Pierce counties offer DEC programs in Washington, according to the state’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety.

Lisa Lydon, a Washington assistant attorney general and a member of Spokane County’s DEC program, said the group is working toward creating a statewide alliance.

“We want to bring the concept of how to deal with drug-endangered children to as many counties as possible,” Lydon said. Smaller counties might not be able to offer a complete DEC program, she said, but a statewide alliance could fill some of those gaps.

Feds join in

From its origins in Riverside County, Calif., DEC has spread from the ground up. Counties, then states, began adopting programs. The federal government got involved in 2005 with the National Drug Endangered Children’s Alliance.

“We’re fledglings on this. It’s kind of new,” Winston said. “Even the federal government is new at this.”

The national alliance was created as a resource for agencies that want to launch DEC programs and to help states coordinate programs, like Idaho’s, said operations manager Julie Ray. The organization offers information about how to get a DEC program started, inspiring stories about why DEC works, and funding and grant opportunities.

Because the program is so new, no national data have been collected, Ray said. People want it, but the alliance hasn’t put together an organized way to compile and disseminate information.

“One of the goals is to get each state to report the information,” so the national alliance can act as a clearinghouse, she said.

About a dozen states worked toward the creation of the National DEC Alliance, and Washington and Idaho DEC representatives were among them, said Lori Moriarty, executive director of the national program.

While the DEC program began with a focus of rescuing children from meth labs, it has expanded to include parents who possess all illegal drugs.

The number of meth labs has dropped significantly nationwide.

In 2002, for example, Washington ranked second in the nation for the number of meth labs seized, with 1,441, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In 2005, the number of lab seizures dropped to 522; last year, it was 178.

In Idaho in 2002, 122 meth labs were seized, compared with only 12 last year.

Lawmakers, primarily in the Western states, also increased penalties for those who make or use drugs in a child’s presence. Three Washington laws enacted in 2002 made it a felony to expose children to methamphetamines, whether a person was manufacturing the drug or just possessed it in the presence of a child.

The powerful amphetamine still remains the most common illegal drug found when authorities have rescued children from homes, followed by marijuana, crack cocaine, heroin and methadone, according to data from Spokane police, Spokane County Sheriff’s Office and Idaho State Police.

In Spokane County, about 65 percent of parents whose children ended up in the DEC program were using methamphetamine, said Amber Cleverly-Thomas, a DEC coordinator and evaluator. In Idaho, between 60 percent and 70 percent of parents whose children entered the program were taking meth, according Idaho State Police.

Grants end in June

Spokane County received $1.5 million in federal grants for the DEC program from 2003 through 2005.

“The majority of this funding has been for identification of the drug-endangered children and providing services to the children,” said Esther Larsen, DEC’s grant administrator. The federal program also paid for one administrative position, a DEC coordinator. Larsen’s work as grant administrator was paid for through Spokane County.

The funds have been spread out over the years but will run out in June, officials said. The agencies involved in DEC have agreed to absorb the personnel expenses at least through the end of the year. Larsen said the group has applied for more federal grants but hasn’t heard back yet. Funds are also being sought from private foundations.

The annual cost to run the program is about $1 million to $1.9 million, Larsen said. The local match from all the agencies involved is estimated at about $400,000 a year, which includes personnel costs for state and local law enforcement and prosecution, and Child Protective Services partners, Larsen said.

Two detectives, one from the Sheriff’s Office and another from the Spokane Police Department, were initially funded through the federal grants. As of January, the county and city began funding those positions, which will continue through the end of the year. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he’ll have to re-evaluate continuation of his DEC detective position next year.

When Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick learned the funding had ended for DEC Detective John Willard earlier this year, she persuaded Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession to fund the specialized position. The city used money saved from vacant positions, Kirkpatrick said. But the position will have to be considered annually. However, “it’s my intention to keep it,” Kirkpatrick said.

A prosecutor was grant-funded for approximately eight months during those first three years, Larsen said. That position is now funded by the Spokane County prosecutor’s office.

The education component, offered by Educational Service District 101 and Spokane Public Schools, and prevention partners, such as Greater Spokane Substance Abuse Council, provides services using local public or private funds. Federal money became available to providers of medical care late last year for cases involving children identified as drug-endangered, Larsen said.

In Idaho, investigative costs for DEC operations are absorbed as part of regular investigative operations, Kane said. The only other cost is the expense of getting hair samples tested, which is the best way to test a child’s level of exposure to chemicals.

Helping the child

Phillips, with Washington’s Child Protective Services, said the DEC program works because of the cross-agency communication.

“It’s favorable because you are working as a team,” Phillips said.

In the past, a child taken from a drug home might be placed with a relative after a police raid, she said. When that happened, the child might not have received needed social services or medical treatment.

Now, CPS often accompanies police during drug raids and takes immediate custody of children. The reverse also happens – if CPS suspects drug use in a home, it can request that police investigate.

Once a child is in custody, “we don’t just do a medical exam,” Phillips said. “We do a mental evaluation, immediate referrals to mental health counseling (and) developmental tests to say where they are educationally.”

The goal is to “stabilize the children as soon as possible,” she said.

Fox, of Lutheran Community Services, said his agency does a full psycho-social assessment of kids who come to them through the DEC program.

“We see a lot of kids who are parentified,” Fox said. “They are taking care of their parents and their siblings sometimes. They have a difficult time playing and socializing. They are very serious. And they often don’t trust adults.”

Children coming out of drug houses often suffer multiple forms of abuse, said Idaho State Police Capt. Clark Rollins. However, neglect is even more common among substance abusers.

DePaolo, who has counseled many DEC children, said: “When kids actually get the help that they need and feel safe, they thrive, not just survive.”