Study elicits 'child's eye' view of methamphetamine abuse and its effects

The children's stories are distressing: They had been left alone and hungry for days, were physically abused, forced to get high, told to steal from loved ones and to lie to authorities, and they had seen their parents "hyper" and delusional.

They had been traumatized, many of them, but they had also been resourceful and resilient. All had been taken from their rural homes and were now in foster care, with some struggling to adjust and some doing remarkably well.

They are the children of methamphetamine users, and they were the subject of a study, apparently the first, to get a child's-eye view of what happens in these families and how it affects the children.

"We're not aware of other studies that look at the effects of being reared in a methamphetamine-involved family on children's psychological development," said Wendy Haight, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the lead researcher.

The study will be published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review (CYSR) and is available online at http://www.childwelfare.com/kids/cysr.htm.

The aim of the study was to gather information that could help these children and others like them in the often-difficult adjustment to foster care and beyond, Haight said.

"We want to help foster parents understand more about what the child has gone through," said study co-author Teresa Ostler, a social work professor at Illinois who specializes in clinical psychology. "A lot of it involves experiences of trauma, where the child needs huge help in putting things together and in making sense, in knowing that their feelings have reasons."

The study involved 18 children, ages 7-14, from 12 families. All were involved with the child-welfare system because of their parents' methamphetamine abuse. At the time of their interviews, they had been in foster care anywhere from five to 39 months, with 15.6 months the average.

The central focus of the study were semi-structured interviews with each child, conducted by a psychiatrist or child clinical psychologist, which lasted about 30 minutes and were audiotaped. The interviews were then transcribed and coded by other researchers to produce specific data.

Methamphetamine can have profound effects on the user, Haight said, including extreme irritability, paranoia and heightened sexual arousal. Users can go on days-long highs, followed by days of sleep. "These are adults behaving in very unpredictable, dangerous ways, and the child is there too," she said.

In most of these families, parents also were making the drug, sometimes involving their children in criminal behavior, and possibly exposing some to toxic fumes and the danger of explosions or fires.

"Meth has such a rapid effect that you see parenting just break down literally," Ostler said. "Families change rapidly in that time and I think that's very terrifying for children," she said.

Yet despite those conditions, the researchers found that when the children were asked about "sad or scary times," they talked first or most often about the experience of losing their parents, even months later, Haight said. "Most want desperately to be with their families and feel a great deal of pain and grief over being separated from their parents."

Another complication is that some of these children had taken on the role of caring for their parents, as well as younger siblings, when their parents were under the influence. One child asked who would watch over her mother when she was "sick," Haight said. They also experience emotional harm from the stigma of being the children of methamphetamine users, many of whom face years in prison.

The children often also carry a strong distrust of authority figures, passed on from their parents as a result of the criminal activity involved, sometimes reinforced by a meth-induced paranoia. Some have been actively socialized into a rural drug culture. "It becomes a huge blockage" to intervention in some cases, Ostler said.

For children raised from an early age with their parents using methamphetamine, even routine aspects of family life, like regular meal and bed times, may represent "culture shock," the authors say.

The researchers are using what they've learned from this study and previous research to develop materials for use not only by foster parents, but also by child-welfare workers and other professionals. "We get more requests than we can accommodate from people just desperate for some information," Haight said.

They also are conducting weekly sessions, or interventions, in the foster homes of the children who took part in the study, with support from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. They are working to develop a model in which local professionals are the ones directly involved with the families, but with supervision from university psychologists and psychiatrists.

As a result of the study, the researchers suggest that additional resources and services, in particular mental health services, need to be more accessible for these children and their foster parents.

Haight also pointed out that teachers in rural schools are often the first to know and get involved when methamphetamine abuse comes into a family, giving children everything from extra attention to food and clothes. With additional funding, the schools could play a larger role, she said.

Even with what many of these children have dealt with, Haight stressed that they are not just passive victims. "Not only have they experienced these horrible situations, but they survived, and you can't help having some respect for that," she said. They responded in a variety of ways, and were often very resourceful in the process, she said.

The CYSR article, titled "A Child's-Eye View of Parent Methamphetamine Abuse: Implications for Helping Foster Families to Succeed," can be found at http://www.childwelfare.com/kids/cysr.htm, through the link, "Articles in Press." The research was funded by an Arnold O. Beckman Award from the University Research Board at Illinois.

The study is part of an ongoing U. of I. research project, also led by Haight, in seven Central Illinois counties (Clark, Coles, Cumberland, Douglas, Edgar, Moultrie and Shelby). The counties are served by the Charleston field office of DCFS, which is collaborating on the project.

Other co-authors of the study were James Black, a psychiatrist with the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield; Linda Kingery, a child-welfare worker in the Charleston field office of DCFS; and Kathryn Sheridan, a graduate student in social work.

An earlier study from the project, "In These Bleak Days: Parent Methamphetamine Abuse and Child Welfare in the Rural Midwest," was published in the August 2005 issue of CYSR and can be found at www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/01907409.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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