“We’re No. 1!” Words typically associated with a victory celebration carry a more dubious distinction in Indiana.
According to the KIDS COUNT in Indiana Data Book, in 2014 Indiana logged the highest number of methamphetamine incidents in the nation. That means police found an active meth lab or dumpsite or seized equipment or ingredients used to make meth. Caught in the middle are more than 350 children who were removed from their homes because of these conditions. In Muncie recently, a 16-year-old girl reportedly suffered third degree burns from a meth mishap in her home.
“Quite often, we’re uprooting those young people with just the clothes on their back because when we find meth labs, we find the associated toxic environment that goes with the making of meth,” said Sgt. Tony Slocum of the Indiana State Police.
A recent survey found 13.4 percent of Hoosier children have lived with someone who had a drug or alcohol problem, worse than the national rate of 10.7 percent. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a parent with a substance use disorder is three times more likely to physically or sexually abuse their child.
That reality has been playing out across Indiana’s cities, suburbs and rural towns. Department of Child Services spokesman James Wide says there’s been a “70 percent increase in the number of our cases that have drug involvement.”
For example, in rural Scott County, police, public health officials and community and faith leaders have battled a highly publicized prescription drug and heroin abuse problem. The KIDS COUNT Data Book shows that from 2011 to 2014, Scott County’s child abuse and neglect rate doubled, the number of confirmed child neglect cases rose 116 percent, and child physical abuse cases increased 142 percent.
Michelle Korty of Prevent Child Abuse Scott County says “90-95 percent or higher” of abuse and neglect cases in Scott County are tied to drugs.
Korty says some parents are spending so much time and energy chasing their next high that “very little of their time, energy, and resources is left to focus on providing the safe, nurturing environment and for meeting the basic needs of their children.”
Not only are child welfare workers seeing more cases in the short term, but the children in these cases also may suffer long-term issues.
“Children really need parents that are physically and emotionally engaged with them,” said John Wernert, a licensed psychiatrist and secretary of Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration. “What really happens is this level of emotional detachment from the parents leads to a lot of downstream problems, behaviorally and psychiatrically, for these children.”
The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress reports children who are exposed to parents who abuse drugs can suffer long-term physical and psychological damage. These children often blame themselves for their parents’ problems. They feel rejection and resentment when left alone for long periods of time, and they are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and struggle to form adult relationships.
“We have got to change the conversation,” said Republican State Senator Jim Merritt of Indianapolis, who has introduced four bills in this year’s legislative session related to the enforcement of drug laws and treatment for drug addiction. “We’ve always thought of it as a character issue. I always say drug addiction is a disease not a character flaw.”
Wernert agrees and says the state is doing more to help addicts manage their disease.
“We understand these are chronically relapsing diseases and it may take someone 8, 10, 12 times to go through detoxification before they actually make a commitment to sobriety and staying clean,” Wernert said.
In the meantime, some of Indiana’s children will continue to suffer. State law says that all Hoosiers are mandatory reporters—meaning if you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, you are required to file a report. You can do so by calling the state’s toll-free child abuse hotline number, 1-800-800-5556.
Taking that step may be one way to ensure that the health, safety, and future of some of our state’s most vulnerable children will become priority number one.
Glenn Augustine is the Interim CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. He may be reached at email@example.com or followed at @augustine_glenn.