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Intervention project helps foster children affected by parents' meth issues


Sharita Forrest, News Editor

Wendy Haight
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
A transdisciplinary team of professionals – including Illinois professor of social work Wendy Haight – explored the impact of methamphetamine addiction on children and their families in seven Illinois counties from 2003-2006. Haight and her co-authors discuss the study in a new book, "Children of Methamphetamine-Involved Families: The Case of Rural Illinois."

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A narrative- and relationship-based intervention implemented by child-welfare professionals in Illinois has helped foster children in the rural Midwest begin recovering from the traumatic experiences associated with their parents’ misuse and/or manufacture of methamphetamine by recruiting people in the children’s communities to help them to talk about and better understand the problems that so profoundly affected their lives.

Over the past two decades, rural Illinois has provided fertile ground for the proliferation of meth. During 1997, Illinois police seized 24 clandestine meth labs, but during 2005, the number of meth lab seizures by Illinois State Police swelled to 1,200, placing Illinois second in the nation, after Missouri, for the number of clandestine production facilities shut down by police that year.

“The research project started four or five years ago when two master’s of social work students, child-welfare professionals from the Charleston (Illinois) field office of the Department of Children and Family Services began noticing an influx of children into the foster-care system because of their parents' meth addiction,” said Wendy Haight, a University of Illinois professor of social work. “These children appeared to have more severe mental health and behavioral problems than other children coming into foster care. Child-welfare professionals needed to know more about these children so that they could develop strategies to help them.”

A transdisciplinary team of professionals led by Haight and Teresa Ostler, also a professor of social work at the U. of I.; psychiatrist James Black; and social worker Linda Kingery explored the impact of methamphetamine addiction on children and their families in seven Illinois counties from 2003-2006.

The researchers interviewed addicted mothers, community professionals such as educators, child-welfare workers and substance abuse counselors, and foster parents as well as 29 children who were in foster care because of their parents’ meth addiction, and spent more than 90 hours shadowing professionals working with the families.

But treating and caring for these foster children posed significant challenges. Some of the children had lived isolated lives and had little contact with people outside their immediate families or their parents’ acquaintances in the rural drug subculture prior to entering foster care; some had been physically or sexually abused, neglected or exposed to domestic violence or homelessness; some children had been taught to misuse marijuana or alcohol as young as age 11; and others had been accomplices in parental criminal activity, coerced into stealing precursors to manufacture meth or into using guns to protect their parents’ labs.

Some children were reared in environments immersed in substance abuse, violence and criminality that extended back several generations, but felt particularly stigmatized by their parents’ use of meth. And the dynamics of denial, distortion and secrecy common to families permeated by substance abuse – where children may be taught to actively resist interventions or lie to teachers, social workers and other outsiders – made it difficult for some children to talk about their experiences and feelings. Oftentimes, foster parents had little knowledge about children’s backgrounds.

Understanding the sociocultural context of the children’s family lives was critical to developing effective interventions, the researchers believed. “If you understand the context that children come from, you can view the problems that they have in foster care in a predictable way – problems obeying rules or asking permission to go places may reflect socialization issues rather than defiance,” Haight said. Children unused to supervision or regular mealtimes and bedtimes may experience “culture shock” in their foster homes.

While more than half the children displayed behavioral problems and psychological symptoms – such as anger, grief, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder – the unavailability of specialized mental health services in rural communities made it difficult for foster families to obtain help.

“We wanted an intervention that could be implemented practically on a larger scale,” Haight said. The researchers identified and recruited “community clinicians” – social workers, counselors, educators and others who work with children professionally – and provided them with weekly, ongoing training and supervision as they worked with one or two children in their communities – at their foster homes, in libraries, at parks, and even graveside for one girl who wanted to hold sessions at her mother’s grave.

The adults framed the relationship as similar to that with a favorite teacher – it would last six to nine months, about the length of a school year – and they prepared the children to say goodbye at the end. The adults helped the children begin to deal with the byproducts of trauma by talking about their life experiences through a process called Life Story Intervention, and helped them identify another adult with whom they could develop an ongoing, supportive relationship thereafter.

Haight and her co-authors discuss the study in a new book, “Children of Methamphetamine-Involved Families: The Case of Rural Illinois” (Oxford University Press, 2009). The researchers plan to build upon those findings with their current work, an intensive two-year study of intact meth-involved families, to develop an intervention for rural Illinois that capitalizes on its strengths, such as the sense of community, and takes into accounts its challenges, such as the lack of mental health services for foster children.

Despite the sometimes-harrowing stories of lives ravaged by addiction, Haight said: “This wasn't a horrifying project to do; it was very inspiring in some ways. We had the privilege of seeing a DCFS field office that was effective in helping children and their families, parents working hard to get well because they love their children and want a healthy family life, children who are managing to function well in spite of considerable challenges. They are worthy of our respect.”

Editor’s note: To reach Haight, call 217-244-5212; e-mail