Saturday, November 5, 2005
By Kevin Osborne
Enquirer staff writer
AMELIA - Tina Scro knew her husband's cooking of ingredients to make methamphetamine in the kitchen of their apartment involved toxic fumes and was potentially explosive.
But she said she was always too wired on the potent drug to care about the risk to their three small children.
When police knocked on the couple's door one day last year, one ordeal for Tina Scro ended and another began.
She lost custody of her children and went to jail.
"I was shocked and scared, but I was also relieved," she said. "It had gotten bad. It got to the point where I would be up for days at a time and then sleep for days, and my daughter would have to take care of my sons."
Months later, after she served 5½ months in jail and another five in a treatment center -- and with her husband still in prison on drug charges -- Scro, 33, has regained custody, a rarity among parents convicted on meth-related charges.
More children are being removed from their homes and placed in protective custody each year because of the increasing use of meth in rural counties. The children often are shuffled among foster homes and case workers.
The worsening situation forced Clermont County to ask voters for more money next week to handle the influx of children.
Issue 6 on the Tuesday election ballot is a five-year tax levy for Clermont County Children's Protective Services. It would replace a smaller assessment that expires next year.
The levy would generate about $4.5 million annually for the agency, compared to $3 million raised each year by the current tax issue.
Taxes on a $100,000 house would jump about $11 a year.
The increase is the first sought by officials since the levy began nearly 20 years ago, and is mostly because of the problems caused by illegal drug use, especially methamphetamine use.
"Meth labs are a huge issue for us," said Anne Arbaugh, the agency's assistant director. "Fortunately, our sheriff is very proactive in finding and busting meth labs. But those children need to go somewhere, and generally they end up coming into our system."
The agency investigates allegations of abuse or neglect. It provides temporary foster care for children and offers case worker services to aid troubled families.
Children's Protective Services had 214 children in custody in January 2003, a number that has increased 50 percent. About 320 children are now under the agency's care. Of that number, 45 were in custody directly because of meth lab busts, a figure that is growing.
The agency spends about $990,000 annually on services for children in custody because of meth busts, about 15 percent of its child placement budget.
"That's going to increase because most of them aren't able to go home, and we get more every year," Arbaugh said.
Overall, more than 80 percent of the children under the agency's care are taken from homes where the parents have drug- or alcoholproblems. Last year, 19 infants were taken into custody at birth because of their mothers' drug use.
A problem on the West Coast for years, meth use and production has spread to America's heartland, gaining a foothold in rural and suburban areas.
In Clermont County, the sheriff's office shut down 26 meth labs in 2001. By 2003, that number increased to 40. So far this year, 35 have been detected and closed.
In Hamilton County, the prosecutor's office had eight meth-related indictments in 2002. The number jumped to 11 the following year, and to 20 in 2004. The county is on pace to exceed that figure this year, a spokeswoman said.
The problem is worse in Warren County, which has more rural areas. Officials there busted two meth labs in 2000. In 2004, they closed nine labs. So far this year, they have busted 23 labs and issued 35 indictments.
"It's on the rise because it's cheap," said Warren County Prosecutor Rachel Hutzel. "That's why it's called 'poor man's heroin.' You can collect everything and make it in your neighborhood. You don't need to go to a drug dealer."
In fact, Clermont ranks second among Ohio's 88 counties for meth lab busts, followed by Warren.
(Butler County doesn't keep meth-related busts and indictments separate from other drug offenses, a prosecutor's spokeswoman said.)
Manufacturing meth in makeshift laboratories is dangerous. The ingredients can be highly flammable when mixed and create a foul odor.
"It stinks when you cook it and it produces a lot of waste product," Hutzel said. "It's easier to conceal that in a rural county."
There are telltale signs of covert meth-making, officials said.
In one instance, Arbaugh and her case workers toured a meth lab in a shed behind a mobile home where children had been removed.
"They had no running water, no food, no heat and the house was filthy. We walked into their back bedroom and it had surveillance equipment like you wouldn't believe. Then, we went into the shed and it had more," she said.
Cans of paint were scattered about and stripes were painted randomly on the shed's floor: "The smell of the paint masks the smell of the toxic chemicals,'' she said.
Children taken from homes where meth is produced typically require more services, Arbaugh said.
First, they must be taken to hospitals for testing. Their clothes and toys frequently must be discarded because of possible contamination. Given how powerful the drug is, many addicts don't stop using, meaning the children stay in custody longer.
Ohio lawmakers recently changed the law to allow people arrested for producing meth in the presence of kids to be charged with child endangering, a third-degree felony that can add another five years to a prison sentence.
Tina Scro's case is unusual, Arbaugh said, because many meth addicts give up on reuniting with their children.
Upon conviction, Scro spent nearly a year in jail and the treatment facility. Her husband was sentenced to three years in prison, and the couple is divorcing. Their daughter and two sons spent more than a year in foster care.
Upon her release in November, she stayed at a shelter in Batavia while she looked for housing and work. Her drug conviction meant she no longer was eligible for federal housing assistance, and many apartment complexes wouldn't accept someone with a drug record.
Initially, Scro was allowed supervised visits with the children for two hours each week, which progressed to unsupervised visits once she got a car. In August, she regained custody of the kids, but still must check in with her probation officer and a case worker.
After finding work at a factory, she settled into an apartment in Amelia with her kids. Her daughter, now age 6, is in kindergarten; her sons, ages 3 and 4, attend day care while she works.
Despite the stress of rebuilding relationships with her children and trying to make a living, Scro isn't tempted to revive her meth habit.
"After this last time, I'm just done,'' she said. "It's not because of the trouble. I got three kids that need me, and when I stop to think about what I put them through and what could've happened, it's more real. I'm just done with it.''
METH'S IMPACT ON KIDS
Use and production of methamphetamine is a major cause of child abuse and neglect, say law enforcement officials and child welfare agencies. Two recent nationwide surveys that compiled results from 500 counties in 45 states found:
40% of counties reported an increase in out-of-home placements for children.
59% reported that the nature of meth addiction has made family reunification more difficult.
69% reported having to develop additional training and special protocols for welfare workers who deal with children exposed to meth.
Source: National Association. of Counties
Street meth is commonly known by the nicknames "speed" and "chalk." A common offshoot, methamphetamine hydrochloride, is crystalline and often called "crystal," "ice" or "glass" because of its appearance.
The drug can be smoked, snorted or injected intravenously. Depending on the dosage, the effects can last up to a few days at a time.
Studies have shown that prolonged use can cause heart failure, brain damage, stroke and psychological disturbances including paranoia and hallucinations.
For each pound of meth produced, 5 to 7 pounds of toxic by-products remain that must be disposed of.