Pubdate: Mon,  4 Aug 2003
Source: North County Times (CA)
Contact:  2003 North County Times
Author: Scott Marshall, Staff Writer 
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


VISTA -- After she was found in a motel room during a drug bust, the witness
described in detail to Oceanside police the process she had seen others use
on a regular basis to smoke black-tar heroin.

The witness -- a 5-year-old girl. The users -- her parents. 

"This little girl hadn't even started kindergarten yet," Deputy District
Attorney Tom Manning said, recounting one of the hundreds of North County
cases where police have found children at scenes where illegal drug
manufacturing, sales and use are taking place.

Last week, Gov. Gray Davis signed into law a bill that seeks to better care
for those young victims of drug crimes. Specifically, the law encourages
counties to develop a program that began in San Diego County and a handful
of other counties more than five years ago.

But while recognizing the problem, the legislation provides no money to help
the Drug Endangered Children program continue in seven counties, where it
began with state and federal grants, or to expand the effort to new areas.

Grant money, which amounted to $250,000 a year for the first three years
locally, also is no longer available, officials said.

Nearly 750 children have been removed from drug-crime scenes in North County
under San Diego County's Drug Endangered Children program since it began
late in 1997 -- with 15 percent to 18 percent of the kids testing positive
for drugs, said Manning, chairman of the statewide Drug Endangered Children

"Children are not little adults," he said. "Children's bodies react
differently to drugs."

Drugs or chemicals that may not cause permanent damage to adults can produce
permanent problems for children, Manning said.

The Drug Endangered Children program coordinates the efforts of social
workers, law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and doctors to better help
children exposed to drugs and drug-related crimes.

Into The Fire

Without the program, delays in getting overworked social workers to respond
to drug-crime scenes have led police and sheriff's deputies to ask the
parents being arrested who should care for their children. The children
often would be left with a neighbor or friend of the parents, Manning said.

"We didn't know if children were going from the frying pan into the fire,"
Manning said.

In a coordinated effort, a social worker from the county Health and Human
Services Agency is assigned to drug-endangered children cases. That social
worker will respond to the scene when children are found or can be called
before a planned raid to be on scene if police or deputies believe children
may be present, officials said.

The social worker will have clothes, car seats, juice and toys for the
children and will care for them, freeing officers to do their jobs, Manning

Social workers ask the children about their health, safety and welfare and
take them to the hospital for tests before taking them to other family
members or the Polinsky Children's Center, Manning said.

"None of the children are being put in harm's way or left behind," Manning

Nick Marcchione, deputy director of the county Health and Human Services
Agency, said social workers are seeing kids get into protective custody
immediately and receive testing, treatment and care. The agencies involved
with the program have a positive working relationship and "solid team-work,"
Marcchione said.

Cops Focus On Evidence

In addition to long- and short-term health benefits for the children, the
program also has resulted in sheriff's deputies doing more in-depth reports
detailing evidence of child endangerment in addition to drug-related crimes,
said Undersheriff Jack Drown, the second-highest ranking official at the
Sheriff's Department.

Protocols developed as part of the program help train law enforcement
officers on how to collect evidence prosecutors can use to file felony child
endangerment charges in addition to drug charges, Manning said. Police also
learn to add allegations that provide stiffer penalties if children under 16
are present at a drug lab.

After county officials approached her about the program, state Sen. Dede
Alpert, D-San Diego, introduced a bill in February that encouraged counties
to develop the program and would have added new crimes to state law.

Alpert's bill initially would have made it a crime to cause or permit a
child to "absorb, inhale or otherwise ingest" certain illegal drugs, such as
cocaine or methamphetamine, or to willfully cause or allow children to be
present where drugs are possessed, smoked, stored or ingested.

However, the bill was amended to eliminate those portions because the state
Senate's Public Safety Committee was not passing any bills that created new
crimes, in part because of the costs involved with incarcerating those who
would be arrested, Alpert said.

Advocates of the Drug Endangered Children program also wanted the law to
provide money to expand the program, but the state's budget crisis kept that
from happening, Alpert said.

Good Intentions, No Money

As a result, the final version of Alpert's bill only encourages law
enforcement and social service agencies to develop standards and policies
regarding their responses to drug-crime scenes with children and for
communities to form groups with prosecutors, law enforcement, social
services and others to address drug-endangered children.

Manning thanked Alpert for her efforts, but said he was disappointed the law
did not include funding and did not directly address "the criminal actions
involved" in drug-endangered children cases.

"However, we are grateful we have this bill because it keeps the issue of
DEC in the forefront," Manning said.

Alpert said that before she introduced the bill, she found that domestic
violence legislation in the 1980s stated the importance of the issue, paving
the way for more substantive law in the 1990s.

The senator said it was important to get a law on the books recognizing the
importance of the drug-endangered children efforts so that when money
becomes available "we can begin to really fund the program."

Efforts to secure state funding before this year had been unsuccessful.

Meth Crisis Spurs Action

In 2000, state lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate approved a bill that
declared a "public health and safety crisis for children in California"
because of the "clandestine manufacture of methamphetamine" and other drugs.
That bill provided $10 million over five years from the governor's office of
Criminal Justice Planning to fund the Drug Endangered Children program in
seven counties, including San Diego.

Although the bill passed the Senate and Assembly on unanimous votes, Davis
vetoed the measure, writing in a veto message that the program's performance
should be assessed before state general fund money was approved to replace
grant funds.

A similar bill in 2001 also would have committed $10 million to the program
over five years, but stalled after passing the Assembly and the Senate
because lawmakers did not concur on a final version of the bill.

Manning said the Drug Endangered Children program will continue in San Diego
County regardless of the absence of grants or state money. Each agency
involved is absorbing its own costs within its existing budget, Manning
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