House OKs $40M to help kids hurt by meth

WASHINGTON -- Meth messes up kids. Congress offers help.

On Monday, the House readily approved a $40 million grant program designed to assist drug-endangered children. The funding is modest.

The results, California lawmakers believe, are worth it.

"Sadly, I have seen the destructive effects of drug abuse, particularly methamphetamine use, on children in my district," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, adding the bill will assist "the children abandoned, neglected or abused" by drug-using parents.

Cardoza wrote the legislation approved Monday, which extends for another two years a grant program approved as part of a 2005 anti- terrorism law. The grants flow to states and ultimately to counties, where methamphetamine and other drugs can poison families.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is advocating a similar bill in the Senate.

It's no coincidence the California lawmakers champion the drug-endangered children program. In part, it's personal. Cardoza and his wife adopted two children from foster homes, and he focuses on the foster care and adoption issues that frequently intersect with the world of drug abuse.

In part, sobering numbers drive the lawmakers. Despite recent signs of progress, California remains a problem state.

"We've been to numerous homes where the kids come back as testing positive for meth, some of them as young as six months," said Bob Pennal, commander of the Fresno Meth Task Force.

Nearly three out of four foster care children in Merced County come from meth-abusing families, Cardoza reported.

In 2004, 356 California children were reported as being directly affected by an illegal meth lab. This exceeded all other states, according to the federal National Clandestine Laboratory Database.

Nationwide, 1,660 children were counted as affected by drug labs in 2005.

Most affected children are under age 5, though law enforcement officials believe many exposures go unreported. Meth exposure can complicate breathing, burn the skin and sicken the body, as well as leading to a greater likelihood for abusive and unsafe living conditions, officials say.

"Any time you're smoking meth, or smoking crack, then the kids are getting cross-contamination," Pennal said.

The White House, through its drug czar's office, began a national drug-endangered children program in 2003. California's Butte County was among the first to receive a $250,000 grant, boosting collaboration among law enforcement, child welfare, social service and other agencies.

"Children who have been exposed to toxic chemicals, criminal activity and abusive parents deserve immediate medical attention and care," Scott Burns, deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said at the time.

Congress added funding in 2005. Nearly half of California's counties now have drug endangered children programs of one kind or another. Last week, many drug endangered children experts gathered in Sacramento for a conference co-hosted by the University of California at Davis.

"Issues faced by children growing up in homes with drugs are wide-ranging and daunting," Kiti Freier, a pediatrician at Loma Linda University, said at the conference in her keynote address.

Fresno County signed an agreement with Pennal's meth task force earlier this year. As part of the drug endangered children program, the county has assigned a social worker to assist the narcotics officers, who in turn bought the social worker a van, using seized drug assets. The social worker will accompany the team on raids when children are expected.

In one recent raid, Pennal said, investigators found three children living in a San Joaquin Valley home where the airborne chemical levels were 1,000 times the level considered safe.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.