CLAYTON -- The number of methamphetamine labs discovered across the state this year has reached a record high, and the people making the illegal concoction aren’t the only ones affected. The number of children injured or affected by meth labs has nearly tripled in the past three years.
On Thursday, sheriff’s deputies in Johnston County raided an active meth lab outside Clayton. Two adults were arrested, and two children, ages 4 and 6, were turned over to the Johnston County Department of Social Services.
Deputy Alex Fish of the Johnston County Sheriff’s office said an emergency room nurse told him the four-year-old was covered with vapors from the meth operation. “They removed clothes from the child thinking it was the clothes that were saturated,” said Fish. “Once they removed the clothes, they realized the chemical odor was coming from the child.”
This year, North Carolina has the highest number of meth labs discovered on record since 2002, according to statistics from the Attorney General’s office. The state has nearly triple the number of children injured or affected by parents involved in making methamphetamine since 2009. So far this year, 106 children have been affected.
According to Noelle Talley, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Justice, the biggest change is the method of making the meth. Such was the case in the home in Clayton where deputies found plastic bottles used to make meth in the kitchen, bathroom, and master bedroom.
“As compared to larger, more traditional meth labs, one-pot labs are highly mobile and create less waste and less meth, but can still be dangerous,” said Talley.
About 80 percent of the meth labs discovered in NC this year have been one pot labs, according to Talley.
Children at meth lab sites
Denise Boyette has worked as a social work administrator at the Johnston County DSS for 20 years. She said DSS is notified by law enforcement when there is a situation where a child has been living with a parent involved with manufacturing methamphetamine. All cases are handled as cases of abuse.
“We find out from law enforcement how often they’ve been cooking and if it’s out in the woods, out in a shed, or in the house,” said Boyette.
Boyette could not release specifics on where the children in last week’s incident were taken, but they are in protective custody. First, DSS tries to place children with relatives, or a close family friend. The family friend has to be approved and DSS ensures the person has not been around the parent while they’ve been making meth. If that doesn’t work, the child goes to foster care.
“We try our best not to disrupt the child’s life because they can’t help what type of living environment they’re exposed to,” said Boyette.
Not only are the children separated from their parents, but also from all of their belongings due to contamination concerns.
“All of the child’s belongings will be replaced due to repeated contamination concerns,” according to the protocol that is supposed to be followed by DSS every time law enforcement seizes a meth lab.
According to the protocol in Johnston County, law enforcement must contact social services before a meth lab raid if there is “a possibility of children in the residence.” Two social workers are on stand-by during the raid. They are prepared to respond on the scene if children are present. A medical assessment and blood work is done on each child found in a home where a meth lab is located.
If necessary, DSS will arrange for counseling for the children.
Boyette said recent changes made by the legislature to reform mental health have made the process of getting a counselor more challenging.
“With the changes in mental health reform it’s more difficult to find counselors or mental health professionals for kids,” said Boyette.
The mental health reform was intended to lower the spending on Medicaid by instating regional mental health centers instead of government-run mental health agencies.
Johnston County has one mental health center. Before the mental health policy changes, a social worker from DSS could “walk across the street” and get a child set up with a counselor, said Boyette. Now, the mental health program is centralized in Durham. The Durham office has to provide services for Durham, Wake, Cumberland, and Johnston counties.
“It takes longer with more hurdles to jump through,” said Boyette. She said if a child needs counseling, they will not be denied the service. But the process now takes longer than it did.
She said the services play out almost like an insurance service. Before sending anyone to Johnston Mental Health, social services must call the office in Durham and get a list of providers and approval.
Boyette has seen a rise in meth labs based on the number of children they’ve helped, but DSS does not track their services.
Boyette said what’s most alarming to her about the increase in meth labs is the change in demographic. She said people expect meth lab users to be one type of person – people living in run-down trailers or run-down country homes. In reality, “people are usually living in decent homes with close neighbors.”
That was the case in last week’s incident.
There have been 12 meth labs found in Johnston County in 2012, down from 13 last year. That doesn’t include the most recent lab found on 150 Loop Road in Clayton.
In Wake County, there have been six labs found so far this year.