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Educators see meth's effects on children

Dee Buckstaff, who owns two Montessori schools in Jackson, saw the rapacious monster methamphetamine up close when it devoured the mother of two preschool students

"It took someone who could have been nominated for 'parent of the year,' " Buckstaff said Saturday at the Wyoming Early Childhood Association's conference at the Parkway Plaza.

She traveled to the conference in Casper primarily for the lectures by child psychologist Dennis Embry, who has advised state officials about the widespread use and effects of methamphetamine in Wyoming.

The person she knows slid from being a good parent to nonfunctioning addict within a year, she said. "The parent who used to care for them 100 percent of the time is no longer able to care for them," she said.

The effects of meth are unlike those of any other drug Buckstaff has seen, especially the effects on young children, she said.

For example, the mother once went through withdrawal and experienced the feeling of bugs crawling under her skin, Buckstaff said.

That feeling extended to her believing that her children had bugs crawling under their skins, so she drove them to the emergency room of a hospital, Buckstaff said.

Teacher Lori Hastert of Rock Springs has seen meth's effects, too, she said.

Because of what happens to mothers who use meth, their children are born with physical problems that foster more incidents of misbehavior and disruption, and they exhibit greater aggression than other students, Hastert said.

About 200 children in Rock Springs, Embry said during his talk, need placement in foster care because their parents' meth use has endangered them.

Embry is president and chief executive officer of the PAXIS Institute in Tucson, Ariz., and works as a consultant with the Wyoming Department of Family Services on substance abuse issues.

He recounted a battery of statistics that he's told other groups, including that Wyoming has the fourth-highest rate of use of meth use in the past 30 days, and that one of 18 Wyoming citizens has used the drug at some point, he said.

He estimates the state has between 6,000 and 10,000 hard-core meth users, but the true numbers are probably much higher, Embry said.

But Embry's concern, and the concerns of the hundreds of conference participants on Saturday, centered on meth's effects on children and the education system, he said.

The number of children diagnosed with mental health problems has doubled in the past 15 years, requiring long-term treatment as they proceed through the schools, he said.

That starts with meth-using mothers who give birth to low birth-weight babies, and the mothers' irritability leads to shaking the babies in an effort to quiet them, Embry said.

The resulting brain damage leads to behavioral difficulties by the time they enter school. Then they're transferred to special education programs, then to alternative high schools, then to having babies of their own, Embry said.

Meanwhile, the children began using alcohol, tobacco and other drugs partly as a result of what they see in their own homes, and partly to self-medicate their mental health problems, he said.

Despite this grim outlook, Embry offered the teachers and child care professionals a lot of hope.

He encouraged them to greet their students in the morning by crouching to their height, hugging them, and even smelling them for possible contamination from drugs from their homes, he said.

The touching helps reverse the effects of methamphetamine that makes children antisocial, Embry said. "They see the world as dangerous; ... so they respond with withdrawal or aggressiveness," he said.

Embry encouraged communities to invest in relatively low-cost measures to help children.

Those measures can include programs to teach children to play because meth-affected children tend to be antisocial, he said.

Communities also can find local people who know how to read to children and reward their learning, as well as helping foster parents and other relatives, he said.

"Simple things repeated have huge paybacks," Embry said.

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