Promising Practices in the Field

Some of the states most affected by the growth in illegal methamphetamine manufacturing have successfully implemented coordinated multidisciplinary programs to help children found living at illegal meth labs. The following descriptions of programs in California, Idaho, and Washington include promising practices that can be adapted by other jurisdictions around the country.


Drug Endangered Children (DEC) Response Teams are operating in Butte, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Shasta Counties with grant funding from the Governor’s Office of Criminal Justice Planning. In addition, DEC teams are operating in approximately 10 other counties and are being developed in 5 counties. Detailed protocols are in place for each aspect of response. Core team members include law enforcement, CPS, district attorney’s office, and medical personnel. Auxiliary team members include mental health, drug treatment, therapeutic, public health, and environmental services professionals. The DEC teams pursue both narcotics cases that involve charges of child endangerment and juvenile dependency cases when children have been present at or exposed to a meth lab site. The DEC program has two overall goals: to break the cycle of child abuse, neglect, and endangerment caused by those who manufacture, use, and sell drugs and to create a collaborative, multidisciplinary response to help children discovered in illegal methamphetamine labs. California’s DEC teams employ a five-step process:

  • When a law enforcement member of the team discovers a child where drugs and hazardous or other negative conditions are present, and a parent is arrested, the designated DEC team member pages the CPS worker assigned to the team.

  • The CPS worker responds to the scene within 2 hours and assesses the child’s physical health, mental health, and well-being. Along with law enforcement officers, the CPS worker then assesses, photographs, and documents the living conditions and the child’s condition and interviews the parents and child. In all cases in which drugs or chemicals are accessible to a child, the CPS worker detains the child and determines proper placement according to the local regulations guiding CPS action.

  • The CPS worker transports the child to a prearranged medical site for a complete medical assessment according to an established DEC medical protocol. A medical professional familiar with the DEC protocol determines the child’s immediate medical and mental health needs and arranges for a more comprehensive physical and developmental examination within 72 hours.

  • The CPS worker manages the case for a minimum of 18 months to ensure that the child receives necessary medical, protective, educational, and therapeutic services and that the child’s placement is secure.

  • A narcotics deputy district attorney prosecutes cases that involve children who were endangered by exposure to illegal drug manufacturing laboratories or illegal drug use or distribution. Allegations of child abuse and neglect are pursued on a parallel track.

Idaho’s Department of Health and Welfare, Division of Family and Community Services, issued a policy memorandum that provides guidance for situations involving suspected meth labs and the health and safety of children present when meth labs are seized. Family and community services workers who discover or suspect they have discovered an illegal lab are instructed to leave the site and then coordinate with law enforcement personnel to assess children’s health and safety using regional multidisciplinary team protocols. Law enforcement personnel are instructed to protect children’s safety and well-being throughout the seizure process and to decontaminate any children determined to be in imminent danger before placing them under the social worker’s care. The social worker must follow established safety procedures while transporting the child to foster care or to an acceptable caregiver and while gathering clothing and other items from the scene. Each child taken into custody is to receive a physical examination within 48 hours. The physician will receive written guidelines for medical evaluation of children and adults exposed to meth manufacturing.

A number of promising practices have been implemented in Idaho. For example, Ada County has established a Drug Endangered Children Program protocol to be used when a child is present inside or on the immediate grounds of a meth lab home. Ada County police who find children at a working meth lab must call hazardous materials, medical, and CPS personnel. All children found living under these conditions are considered to be in imminent danger. The Ada County paramedic assesses all children before they are removed from the scene. Police and paramedic reports are to include detailed descriptions of the child’s behavior, body language, and mental and physical state. Photographs must document the child, the laboratory, the lab’s proximity to the child’s living area, and the child’s general living conditions. If the paramedic determines that the child has not had an acute exposure to dangerous chemicals, the child will receive a change of clothing and will be placed with the Department of Health and Welfare to be transported to foster care. If the paramedic determines that a child has had an acute exposure to dangerous chemicals, the child will be decontaminated at the scene and all clothing will be bagged and preserved as evidence. The child will receive medical treatment within the Department of Health and Welfare guidelines, and notice for a shelter care hearing will be served to the parents or guardian. When released from the hospital, the child will be placed in foster care through the Department of Health and Welfare and the shelter care hearing will be scheduled. Law enforcement personnel are instructed to request the assistance of a victim-witness coordinator and to file paperwork for prosecution based on whether the child shows symptoms of exposure to dangerous chemicals. Detailed instructions are also provided for handling children who are visiting the meth lab home and for children found in a nonworking laboratory.


Residential meth lab cleanup crews in Washington report that children were, or had been, present at approximately 35 percent of the labs they have investigated. The Department of Social and Health Services is working with the Washington State Patrol, Department of Health, and Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development to develop a model response protocol. Additional training for CPS workers is planned. Efforts are under way to form multiagency response teams on a regional basis. Meth action teams are being formed in many communities. The Governor’s Methamphetamine Workgroup has recommended a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that outlines individual agency responsibilities, joint procedures, and an agreement to share information and data. Recommendations for cross-system collaboration include protocols for health departments, police agencies, hospitals and medical providers, substance abuse treatment providers, environmental health agencies, and child welfare agencies.

Pierce and Thurston Counties coordinated their approach for responding to children found in meth labs: the law enforcement agency handles the drug-related criminal issues; the health department handles the site cleanup; the CPS worker transports the children to the hospital or to a medical care provider, where the children are evaluated and treated; and all personnel provide information to the prosecutor, who files the appropriate charges.

The emphasis in Pierce County is on a continuum of care. Pierce County has established a written MOU for CPS, law enforcement, the prosecuting attorney’s office, and a children’s hospital and health center. The MOU specifies the services to be provided by each agency. CPS assigns social workers and a CPS supervisor to each case. Social workers receive a pager and are available as needed. Law enforcement personnel provide advance information to CPS when appropriate. Exchange of information proceeds in a timely manner. The prosecuting attorney’s office reviews and prosecutes all appropriate cases in which children are exposed to hazardous toxic materials involved in manufacturing methamphetamine. The children’s hospital receives and treats children exposed to chemicals in accordance with protocols modeled after California’s DEC program, including medical assessment, blood and urine testing, and a respiratory check within 24 hours.

The Pierce County CPS worker responds immediately when law enforcement personnel find children living at meth lab sites. All children found at meth lab sites are decontaminated and taken into protective custody. The CPS worker uses a designated state car stocked with toys, stuffed animals, food, water, formula, and extra clothes and immediately transports the children for a full medical assessment. A local community service group provides a quilt for each child through its Project Linus. Following the medical checkup, the children are placed with appropriate relatives or in foster care. A receiving center/foster home program has been established in the region. All foster parents have received special training and are educated in issues associated with children found in meth labs. Of the 67 children removed from meth labs in Pierce County in 2001, the majority were not returned home after the initial placement.

Relevant Legislation

States have enacted legislation that addresses issues related to children found at clandestine methamphetamine lab sites. For example, statutes in Washington include RCW 26.44.200, which requires the investigating law enforcement officer to contact the Department of Social and Health Services immediately if a child is found at a meth lab, and RCW 13.34.050, which provides guidelines related to taking an endangered child into custody. Idaho’s Child Protective Act requires the prosecuting attorneys of each county to develop interagency multidisciplinary teams to investigate child abuse and neglect referrals within each county. California’s Drug Endangered Child Protection Act includes sections on creating a pilot program, coordinating multiagency response teams, preparing an annual report containing data on the number of children found in and removed from clandestine labs, and distributing funds. These funds are provided based in part on the number of prosecutions brought against clandestine labs where children are found, the number of children found at seized or prosecuted clandestine labs, and the demonstrated ability to use multiagency emergency response teams to meet the immediate health and safety needs of children found at clandestine labs and to prosecute the individuals operating those labs. California drug laws also specifically address the possession of precursor chemicals with intent to manufacture methamphetamine and provide for enhanced penalties when these chemicals are found in a structure where a child younger than age 16 is present. The penal code also requires people who are convicted of abusing a child or endangering a child’s health while under the influence of drugs to abstain from drug use during probation and to submit to random drug testing.

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Children at Clandestine Methamphetamine Labs: Helping Meth's Youngest Victims
June 2003