Aaron Pankratz, CASA associate director, said that babies exposed to meth have hit a crisis level countywide.
Paul Wellman

An increasing number of infants exposed to methamphetamine have raised concern among Santa Barbara social workers. In the last three months, about 30 babies were in need of a court-appointed special advocate, better known as a CASA. Most had been exposed to meth.

“We see it as a crisis,” CASA spokesperson Kira Farrell said, adding that most of the 30 babies were from the northern part of the county. “We have noticed a huge trend in the drug-abuse area.” While the nation is struggling with the opioid crisis, she said, “For our county, it is mostly meth.”

One child identified as Evan was found sitting on the kitchen floor when his mom and dad were cooking meth in the kitchen. The police raided the house and arrested his parents. One-year-old Evan was likely placed in foster care along with more than 450 other children throughout Santa Barbara County. Some are sent out of the county.

The 30 babies — children under the age of 3 — range from being born with meth in their systems to being in the room when their parents are using. “It is a spectrum,” Farrell said. In all cases, CASAs advocate for neglected or abused children as they navigate the convoluted foster-care system. CASAs act as the go-between among attorneys, foster parents, and the judge, attending court hearings and providing a voice for children who have been neglected. Three-quarters of all foster-care children are impacted by drug and alcohol abuse.

Meth-exposed babies can show sings of anxiety, depression, and ADHD at young ages, a 2012 study in Pediatrics found, but they are not broken as fears of “crack babies” espoused in the 1990s.

Meth use is on the upswing. Several national news headlines recently declared meth is back. But in fact it never truly left — it was largely obscured by the opioid crisis. “It might go up. It might go down,” county drug expert John Doyel said. But “it is constant. I really think it didn’t leave. It dipped down, and it was overshadowed by the opioid crisis.”

There was a crackdown on meth in the early to mid-2000s, causing an initial drop in cases, explained Santa Barbara Sheriff’s narcotics detective Tyler Yeates. “We were really going after it,” he said. Detectives were called out to meth labs. Federal grants paid for public service announcements. Posters plastered all over town showed the downtrodden faces of meth abusers — red boils all over their faces. Pharmacies were regulated so they could not sell ingredients used to make meth over the counter.

Eventually, the majority of the meth was coming into the county from Mexico, Yeates explained. “It’s kind of the same thing as making a massive wedding cake on your own, but you’d need to invest in all of the ingredients — the mixer, the large oven. Or you could go to the bakery and say, this is what I want.” The risk of manufacturing is high while the cost of imported drugs is low, he explained.

In recent years, methamphetamine was involved in many drug- and alcohol-related deaths. Often the drug is used with depressants for its speedball effect, Doyel explained. “Speedball” refers to a drug combo of a stimulant and a depressant.

Coroner records show meth-related deaths in Santa Barbara County doubled — to 29 — from 2014 to 2015 but declined some — to 22 — from 2016 to 2017.

“The new speedball is not cocaine and heroin,” Doyel said. “Now we believe it is being replaced by meth because it is so much cheaper and easier to get.”

While heroin accounts for 30 percent of county treatment admissions, meth admissions are up to 20 percent, according to Doyel. Two weeks ago, Sheriff’s detectives arrested a 35-year-old Lompoc resident for possessing 85 grams of methamphetamine packaged for sales. Investigators also arrested a 63-year-old and a 21-year-old in Santa Maria for possessing an ounce of meth.


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