At dinner, two-year-old John David and four-year-old Madison ate beef jerky and Doritos, washing it down with NyQuil.
Their mother was still in the Kentucky State Penitentiary, where John David was born.
Their father was driving with them in the back seat one night in October 2005 when he overdosed on methamphetamine and was flown out to a nearby hospital.
It was then that their aunt, Sheila Eaton, called her husband, Barren County Sheriff Chris Eaton and told him she was picking up her niece and nephew and bringing them home.
“I heard what had happened and said ‘what’s going to happen to the babies?’” Sheila Eaton said.
“The babies” is now the term the family uses for the two kids, now 8 and 10. They still call Chris Eaton “Uncle,” but he and Sheila have adopted them to join their three other kids.
Fervent debate has been going on in the Kentucky legislature to prevent methamphetamine from becoming even bigger than what lawmakers and law enforcement call one of the biggest drug problems in the commonwealth.
Efforts have been brought forth from law enforcement on one side and pharmaceutical lobbyists on the other in the discussion of whether or not pseudoephedrine, a major ingredient in the making of meth, should be made prescription-only.
Meanwhile, 420 children from Barren, Warren, Metcalfe, Hart, Edmonson and Butler counties are in foster care, largely because of abuse and neglect related to the drug addictions of their parents, according to Will Constable, director of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of South Central Kentucky.
CASA is a non-profit organization whose volunteers work with the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS) and directly with children who have been removed from their homes.
“Meth users are generally very neglectful,” Constable, who is also retired from the CHFS, said.
“A lot of times we hear about it when the kids are seen in school and [neglect] is detected. They have dirty clothing or are inappropriately dressed, or they are unprepared for school, for example.”
For the Eatons, the neglect was noticeable and took longer than a few days to fix.
Madison had rotted teeth and an abscess in her mouth that required surgery. John David had two mouth surgeries as well; and even after just fixing their teeth, Sheila said, the children noticed a difference in their lives.
“As soon as Madison woke up from surgery she looked at me and said ‘Aunt Sheila, my mouth don’t hurt anymore,’” Sheila Eaton said. “And it hit me that she must have just been feeling this pain all the time.”
From the Start
The adoption of his two youngest children was only one of many instances in which meth had been a part of Chris Eaton's life as a member of law enforcement in the county with the fourth-highest amount of discovered meth labs in the state.
From the moment a meth lab is found and arrests have been made, children are affected. If they are in a home where meth has been found, they have to be decontaminated, both at the scene and later at a hospital.
“They think it’s fun to take a bath outside and they think it’s fun to ride in the ambulance,” said Shannon White, Barren County Solid Waste Coordinator and HazMat team member. “It’s all fun until they realize their parents aren’t going with them.”
They are taken to a hospital with a Social Services representative and blood tests, X-Rays, drug tests and other analyses are done to check them for immediate health problems.
After that an investigation begins.
If evidence of sexual abuse is shown, the children are taken to the Barren River Child Advocacy Center for interviews, Constable said. If there is physical abuse, a social worker will be notified as well.
For CASA, the goal is reunification of the children with their parents as long as there hasn’t been a fatality, such as a child shaken to death by a parent.
It is a long road for the children and the parents.
The parents face not only meth possession and manufacturing charges, but also the charge of controlled substance endangerment to a child, which can result in a sentence of 20 years to life in prison if convicted of first-degree endangerment, a Class A felony.
After they get out of jail, though, the parents have their first meeting with the CHFS where they start psychological and drug testing along with parenting classes and other stipulations to attempt to get their children back.
“But meth users aren’t going to give up their habits very easily, so it takes them a while to get through this process,” Constable said.
Sometimes they don’t make it, and the courts change the goal from reunification to adoption for the children. This means CASA now has to work to get the children their rights and introduce them to the foster care system.
The largest group of children in foster care in Kentucky are ages 0 to 5 years, according to statistics from 2010 by the Citizen Foster Care Review Board. The board also found the average length of stay in fiscal year 2010 for children was almost 21 months.
The majority of children taken out of foster care in 2010 – 39 percent – were released to the care of their parents or primary guardians, the board found, but 19 percent of children were released because of adoption.
In 2010, Barren County had 153 reviews of 86 children by the board.
Madison and John David’s mother and father are both out of jail now, but the father only sees the kids at family events. The mother, who now lives in Indiana, Sheila said, has not attempted to contact the Eatons for years.
They tried to allow her to see the children on weekends when she still lived in a nearby county, but it only lasted a month-and-a-half before she returned to drugs.
Immediately after being taken out of their homes, children show short-term effects of both the trauma and exposure to drugs like meth.
“In the short term, they are traumatized by being taken, but they also start to show symptoms that may not have shown up or been noticed before they were taken, like defiant behavior or [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder],” Constable said.
In the long term, children can develop attachment disorders if their parents don’t visit them or a stable home is not found. Either they can detach from adults completely or freely attach to any adults, Constable said.
Madison had problems with detachment, according to her aunt, and would act out aggressively at times. John David had detachment issues as well, which led him to treat Madison as his mother figure.
“He would have nightmares, and sometimes he still does, and he’d wake up and go straight to her room and get in bed with her,” Sheila said. “She was the one who raised him and they are still so close.”
Because of the neglect the children suffered, the Eatons said they often had to tell Madison she didn’t have to be a parent for John David.
“I would have to say, ‘Madison I’ll discipline him, you go play,’” Sheila said.
John David also suffered from learning disabilities after starting school, but the effects of being in a stable home with routines and schoolwork have promoted positive results from the rough beginning they had, according to their aunt and uncle.
“We really think that if he wasn’t with us, he wouldn’t be playing sports, which he loves, he probably wouldn’t be in school regularly,” Sheila said. “And she was detached, but now she’s a social butterfly. These are things I don’t think would have even been seen had they stayed with their father.”
Not only has the family taken them in, but they have become familiar to the community. John David even goes to work with his uncle, but that’s not what he wants to do with his life. He shook his head when asked if he wanted to be a sheriff one day.
“I want to be a lifeguard,” John David said.
Madison, who now enjoys math and science and hanging out with her two older sisters, wants to be a veterinarian.
Though they have never said that Madison and John David’s parents could not see them and the children still know them as uncle and aunt, the Eatons said they would rather see the children through their adolescence than watch them go back to their childhood situation.
“The best thing I’ve ever been called is Dad,” Chris Eaton said. “But Uncle is a great one, too, and I just want to see them happy like they are.”
Anyone in the state who has a “reasonable idea” that a child is being abused by their parents has the responsibility to report it, Constable said.
“Be aware of the surroundings, of bruising or unexplained injuries or if you see a person abusing a child,” Constable said. “Parental abuse must be reported.”
Abuse can be reported to the agencies and officials such as the local police, county attorney or the Cabinet for Health and Family Services’ local offices.
A child abuse hotline is also in place in Kentucky at (800) 752-6200.
Donations to fight child abuse can also be made to CASA, which is a United Way agency that receives no state funds other than grants, or local foster homes.
Susan Tebben is a reporter for The Glasgow Daily Times, and a 2012 John Jay/HF Guggenheim Fellow. Her story appeared this week in The Glasgow Daily Times. She welcomes comments from readers.