The recent death of a toddler in Sacramento, Calif., has revived
a passionate debate over a vexing question: What should society do
when drug addicts have children?
Authorities say little Rebecca Meza was drowned by her mother's
boyfriend. Both the mother, who had a history of child neglect, and
the boyfriend are alleged to have used methamphetamines, an illegal
stimulant often associated with child abuse.
The tragedy has sparked outrage and calls for action in
California's middle-of-the-road capital city, and the local
child-welfare agency has been accused of coddling drug-using
parents by emphasizing drug treatment over child safety.
In Sacramento and elsewhere in the US, pressure is intensifying
for child-welfare authorities to remove youngsters automatically
from the homes of substance abusers - a marked shift from the
family-preservation policies that have guided social workers for
the past 20 years.
"Too many kids are left in serious neglect situations," says
Kathy Dresslar of the Sacramento-based Children's Advocacy
Institute. "If there is drug abuse and neglect going on, the child
should be temporarily removed."
Nationwide, there is plentiful evidence of a close link between
substance abuse and child abuse. Alcohol and drugs are factors in
the placement of more than 75 percent of children who enter foster
care, according to the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA).
"Drugs are the single-biggest risk factor in most of the
families" in child welfare, says Michael Petit, CWLA deputy
State and federal legislators are responding. A bill introduced
by Rep. Susan Molinari (R) of New York would place children born
with drugs in their system under child protective services.
California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) has proposed similar legislation as
part of his welfare-reform plans.
No silver bullet
But child-welfare officials and others caution against
simplistic approaches. Moving children into the overburdened
foster-care system may only worsen their plight, some say. Most
child-welfare experts argue, too, that family situations are too
complex to be judged by set criteria.
"You have to look at the given situation and determine the
capacity of the family to function, and whether the situation is
severe enough to pull a child from the home," says Mona Mena,
director of the regional parental network for Alameda-Contra Costa
counties in northern California.
The current uproar is part of a broader debate over handling
abused and neglected kids. In the 1960s and '70s, the prevailing
approach was to remove children from their homes, but that shifted
from the mid-70s, when family preservation held sway. …