Iowa Public Television


Small Town Fights Meth Epidemic

posted on May 5, 2006

ADM this week announced 3rd quarter net earnings exceeded $347 million -- up 29% from 2005. Last week, the company installed an ex-Chevron Corporation executive as its new president and CEO... a move that was viewed by some as proof ADM's priorities lie in energy. While the alternative fuel boom is having a major impact on rural America, the countryside also faces social issues that know no borders. One of the most serious problems is methamphetamine. While many headlines in recent years focused on thefts of anhydrous ammonia -- a key ingredient of meth -- the problem goes beyond stolen goods. Not only is methamphetamine being made in the heartland, it's use has grown to epidemic proportions -- creating the need for small communities to address what was once considered a "big city" problem. John Nichols reports on one small town's efforts to stop the meth epidemic.

Small Town Fights Meth Epidemic

Ottumwa, Iowa is a typical Midwestern town. While the local economy still is emerging from the abyss of the '80's, Main Street is busy. And the local packing plant employs about 10 percent of Ottumwa's 25,000 residents. The town resembles others in the Midwest in another, more dubious respect... Ottumwa has a methamphetamine problem.

Lieutenant Jim Clark, Ottumwa Police: "We've had a lot of crime. I think everyone experiences a lot of crime related to drugs or meth in particular."

This series of before and after mug shots depicts graphically the impact of methamphetamine on its users. Nevertheless, over the past five years, meth use in rural America has exploded.

In 2004 alone, nearly 16,000 methamphetamine labs were seized by law enforcement officials across America. Many of the labs were in the Midwest where traffickers converted readily available chemicals into methamphetamine.

The state of Iowa has seen more than its share of meth. Last year though, the legislature passed a law restricting the sale of pseudoephederine, a common cold remedy and vital ingredient of methamphetamine. The law limits how much of the chemical can be purchased and the state now maintains a database of its buyers.

Iowa officials say the law has virtually eliminated meth labs. But that's not to say the meth problem is over.

Ottumwa Mayor Dale Uehling: "There is a concern, of course, that now the more pure forms of meth are going to be coming in, the crack and ice I believe it is and what really bothers me is the detrimental effect on the children that are involved in the families, the drug abusers and the meth and what happens to the children and having the children taken away from the family and the trauma that causes the children and all of these things."

Local leaders realized that children often are meth's forgotten victims. So, in 1998 they formed the Southeast Iowa Task Force for Drug Exposed Children.

Task Force members include a broad range of individuals representing the health, human services, substance abuse treatment, and law enforcement communities.

Cheryll Jones, ARNP, Southeast Iowa Taskforce for Drug Endangered Children: "We have a history in this community of working together. I think maybe part of it is because we're rural and frankly you can't always look to other people to fix things for you. In fact, we've had kind of a motto, we better hang together or we'll all hang separately."

The Task Force serves 10 counties in Southeast Iowa and three of those counties rank in the state's top five in terms of "Drug-Related Child Abuse."

Cheryll Jones, ARNP, Southeast Iowa Task Force for Drug Endangered Children: "Our goal is that every child born will be born free of illicit drugs and if that isn't possible that they will get, they and their family will get appropriate treatment."

When children are exposed to illegal drugs like methamphetamine, they often end up at the Regional Child Protection Center at Blank Children's Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa.

And it is here that Dr. Rizwan Shah oversees America's only clinic providing assessment and follow-up of meth-exposed infants. But Shah claims the bigger problem she often sees with children exposed to illicit drugs is neglect.

Dr. Rizwan Shah: We have kids at two and three years of age who don't say a word, who don't know how to play with their toys, who don't know how to ask for food because they were left to fend for themselves and nobody was there when they were hungry to provide them food so they quit asking for food. And so these are the issues with severe neglect and in human development, psychological and emotional neglect is much more devastating than any other form of abuse that we can see.

Since many anti-drug programs readily available in big cities are virtually nonexistent in rural areas, the Taskforce began to develop its own. One of the earliest and most successful programs is called "Moms off Meth."

Leigh Bakker: "I went from having a job and having a home and having vehicles and being okay to living out of my van with my kids..."

Leigh Bakker is a graduate of "Moms off Meth." Like many of the other moms, Bakker spent time at a residential treatment program called "Bridge of Hope." While in treatment, children accompany their moms at the facility, but due to confidentiality laws, their identities are protected. All of the women say being with their children is essential to their recovery.

Leigh Bakker: "I've been through several treatments and this one was, you know, the one that finally took. It was a long-term treatment. And, you know, I didn't have custody of my daughter when I came here and that was one thing that I have custody of my daughter now and my son also. So, you know, it was one of the best things that happened that I got her back.

Not long after "Moms off Meth" was established, a similar program was started for Ottumwa's fathers. It's called "Dads in Recovery."

Judson Letts, Dads in Recovery: "I started doing time in the reformatory school. I advanced from there to going to prison, in and out of prison six times...

Judson Letts says he battled drug addiction for more than 30 years. And he claims programs created by the Taskforce were essential to his recovery.

Juddson Letts, Dads in Recovery: "Most of my life I grew up being judged as a bad character, I was a bad character and to be accepted into a program, for people to be a real human being that was overwhelming to me. And I found recovery in that way."

Dustin Murphy, Ottumwa: "I grew up around convicts and drug addicts. My dad was the vice president of the Grim Reaper's motorcycle club and my mom was a bartender, a drug addict and I thought it was just a part of life..."

Dustin Murphy also served time in Iowa's correctional system. Sober for the past two years, Murphy claims the Taskforce helped him find direction and a purpose in life.

Dustin Murphy, Ottumwa: "I'm full-time student out at Indian Hills and I want to work with the kids because that is something I needed."

All thes program that you guys put together -- I didn't like you guys at first..."

Dave Grace, Ottumwa: "I started using drugs when I was eight years old. Started using meth when I was ten years old. I was twelve and I shot meth for the first time...

Dave Grace went to prison initially as a teenager and spent time in all of Iowa's correctional facilities.

Though state officials, at one time, removed his children from the home, the family recently was reunited. And while his 25-year battle with drug addiction was, in many respects, horrific, his story today is one of hope.

Dave Grace, Ottumwa: "You guys are the reason why, the Dads, the Moms of Meth Program... There's something that if you really want to make it and you really want to change your life, there's something out there for you. And as soon as you find out what that is, I'm 'gonna tell you what... It's awesome."

For Market to Market, I'm John Nichols.

Tags: drugs news rural