LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A doctor at Arkansas Children's Hospital doesn't believe it's a coincidence that abuse of children is increasing at the same time as abuse of the illegal drug methamphetamine (search).
From breathing toxic fumes to sustaining burns of the mouth and throat, children are bearing the burden of living in homes where meth is being made, says Dr. Jerry Jones, also on the staff of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
"We consider that the exposure of a child to an illegal substance is a form of maltreatment and neglect," Jones said Tuesday. But the abuse can take other forms as well, he said.
Jones, director of the Team for Children at Risk at Arkansas Children's Hospital, said individuals who abuse meth can become prone to violence, so there is an increased risk for physical abuse to a child.
In addition to the physical abuse, Jones said that children are also at risk of sexual abuse, because it is believed that meth users experience heightened sexual desire while on the drug.
Jones first got involved in treating children who were the victims of abuse in 1978, and then got involved with the Center for Children at Risk when it opened in 1989, he said.
As a children's doctor and the director of the center, Jones sees children who are hospitalized for every kind of abuse. Recently, however, Jones said there has been an increase in the number of children who exhibit signs of meth exposure.
"We realized that the numbers of meth labs were increasing remarkably," Jones said. "At the same time we realized that more children who had been exposed were being brought to Arkansas Children's Hospital," he said.
Children who have been exposed to meth exhibit various illnesses, Jones said. One problem in linking these illnesses to exposure to meth, however, is that there are, "not common, specific symptoms that are diagnostic of meth use," he said.
One example of the problem, Jones said, is that some children are brought to the hospital because of trauma to the lungs that comes from inhaling the fumes of a meth lab. This kind of trauma "looks similar to a child with asthma," he said.
When meth exposure is suspected, various tests on the blood, urine or hair are done to determine whether a child has been exposed to the drug, Jones said. These tests determine the toxicity and help "enhance prosecution," he said.
Jones believes that the tests are important "because prosecution is often the surest way to ensure the safety of the children."
Recently the Arkansas Legislature passed two laws that Jones believes will help keep children safe from drug abuse.
Garrett's Law expanded the definition of neglect in the Arkansas Child Maltreatment Law (search) to include causing a child to be born with an illegal substance in his or her system or with a health problem as a result of the pregnant mother's use of an illegal substance.
Another law requires stores to lock products containing pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in meth, behind pharmacy counters and strictly regulates their distribution.
Although Jones said the legislature paid a lot of attention to the issue, he said work to make people aware of the problem has just started.
"Only in the past two years have people nationally become concerned for these children," Jones said. "There's a tremendous need for education. Most physicians are not aware, and most hospitals are not equipped to deal with these children," he said.