Most of the crystal methamphetamine sold in the U.S. today is manufactured south of the border. Riverside County, Calif., has become a transportation hub for the drug, but five years ago it was the meth-producing capital of the country.
That's when Gloria Hillard brought us the story of children under the influence of meth-addicted mothers. Hillard recently returned to the area and reports that while the labs or "cook houses" have disappeared, the appetite for the drug has not.
Behind the wheel of an SUV is a man in a checkered shirt, and on his face is maybe a day's growth of salt and pepper. Sgt. Eric Hernandez runs the Drug Endangered Children Program for Riverside County Sheriff's Department. He's headed down a two-lane highway, following up on a report that a couple with small children is using and selling methamphetamine.
"So we're going to go over there and check on the status of the children and to see if in fact there is drug sales occurring at the location," Hernandez says. "We probably rescue, on average the last three years, 320 children out of homes that we found either drug sales or drug use."
Hernandez meets up with other members of his team and a woman from Child Protective Services. In their unmarked cars, they turn down a quiet street.
The neighbors don't appear to be surprised at sight of three armed sheriff's deputies or that they stop at a house with a front lawn littered with garbage, empty boxes and toys.
Hernandez and his team knock and are allowed to look around, but it turns out the mother, on felony probation for meth use and possession, is not home. Neither are her daughters, ages 6 and 9. A young couple with a toddler in the living room say they don't know why the bedroom door is locked. The woman from Child Protective Services stays with them while two officers get into the bedroom through an open window.
"Since we found suspected methamphetamine in the room it makes it an emergency response where CPS has to pick up the kids right away," Hernandez says.
Easier said than done. Two hours pass. The officers suspect the mother has been tipped off and won't be returning to the house. They believe one of the daughters is with the mother and the other may be visiting her father a few miles away.
Recovery At A Woman's Place
It's a morning workshop at A Woman's Place, a residential drug recovery center. The facility is filled to capacity with a long waiting list. The women in this room range in age from early 20s to mid 50s. Many have been arrested for possession, use or sale of methamphetamine, a drug they describe as both numbing and powerful.
"I didn't even know I had a drug problem. I'm totally not even kidding," says Elizabeth Kendrick, who used meth and heroin.
As she talks, the 30-year-old mother absently adjusts her blond ponytail. When she was arrested, authorities placed her 3-year-old daughter into protective custody.
"It's not like I didn't take care of her. I took care of her. I'm the one that fed her. I'm the one who bought her all her stuff," Kendrick says. "But I didn't take care of her the way you're suppose to because I was never very emotional."
She's now doing a 90-day recovery program that will allow her daughter to join her at the facility.
"I didn't lose everything, but I lost the very most important thing to me. But I'll have her back soon," she says.
Moments Of Hope
A few miles away is a Child Protective Services office that handles emergency responses of reported child abuse.
Five years ago, Christine Brown was a social worker with CPS. Today, she is a supervisor.
"We're still seeing the same behaviors in the families, and we're still seeing the same effects on the kids. They're still exposed, it's still happening, and it's a battle. It's a battle every day," Brown says.
On Brown's table are photos of five children from one home picked up the night before. The youngest, a 3-month-old girl, could not be held without screaming — a symptom of meth exposure.
"This is another child that was in the home. She's 1 and can't speak. There's no development of speech happening at all," she says.
Brown opens a thick file on another child. The mother has been a meth addict for years. Staring back at us is the latest photo of the 8-year-old boy. It was taken the night before.
"The mother opted to leave him with two men that he didn't know to take care of him while she went off and did whatever she was doing," Brown says. "The sad thing is we did all these posters to show what meth did to parents and their bodies and really what we should be showing is this. This is what meth does. This is what it does to children."
For the first time as a reporter, I could not find the words to describe the look on the young boy's face.
A Common Cycle
For those working on the front lines of crimes against children, each day is measured by moments of hope rather than horror. Hernandez shared a story of another boy whose parents had been using and selling meth for more than a decade.
"The house was really dirty. There was a minimal amount of food. Some of the kids slept on a mattress on the floor in the living room," he says.
When police opened another door, they found the boy and his younger brothers and sisters with their clothes packed.
"He had been waiting for us to show up. All I could think about is what would have happened to this 15-year-old boy and these kids had we not arrived," he says.
And what happened to the children of the young woman whose house Hernandez's team raided earlier? The mother eventually turned herself in and was arrested for possession and child endangerment. Her daughters were taken into protective custody. It's a cycle Hernandez has seen too many times.
"We run into cases where the grandmother is still using. Her daughter is still using and her daughter now has kids and it'll just continue," he says.
Hernandez looks out at the window as the sun falls behind rolling hills. He shakes his head. The meth labs may have moved to Mexico he says, but here their legacy endures.