Kids from drug-making homes mostly healthy: study

NEW YORK Thu Aug 4, 2011 3:42pm EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Most children raised in homes where illegal drugs are produced appear to be in good health, according to a small Canadian study.

Still, a third of the 75 kids tested positive for at least one drug, researchers report in the Journal of Pediatrics.

The children were between two months and 15 years old and all lived in homes producing illicit drugs such as marijuana, cocaine or methamphetamine.

Despite that environment, the vast majority of children were healthy. They had lower rates of eczema, asthma and learning disabilities than Canadian kids in general, for instance, and a mere four percent of them were overweight, compared to 17 percent in the larger community.

Those who were in school were also in age-appropriate grades -- an important indicator of a child's well-being, according to Dr. Gideon Koren, a pediatrician at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, who led the study.

The kids in the study had all been removed from home after police discovered the conditions they were living under. As part of a routine started in 2006, they were taken to the Hospital for Sick Children, where doctors assessed their general health and well-being.

None of the four kids from cocaine-producing households had signs of drug use. By contrast, of the four children who lived in homes producing methamphetamine or MDMA, all tested positive for the drugs.

"Clearly no one should stay in those environments," Koren told Reuters Health. But the anxiety children feel when separated from their parents can be devastating, he added, so the decision to remove them from their caretakers should never be taken lightly.

The best move for the child likely depends on a variety of factors, Koren said, particularly the ability of parents to take good care of their children. That contrasts with the current official view that children exposed to drugs at home should automatically be taken from their parents.

"There are a number of factors that need to be assessed -- most specifically, the degree of impairment of the caregiver," said Dr. Maida Galvez, a pediatrician at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, who wasn't involved in the study.

"The biggest risk to the child is neglect," she told Reuters Health.

The families in the study had not previously come to the attention of child protection agencies, suggesting the kids were not being mistreated.

Still, the study was small, and home environments can vary greatly depending on which drug is being produced. That's why some experts deemed the study exploratory, not conclusive.

"The paper points out that we shouldn't lump all children and drugs into one basket," said Dr. Penny Grant, a pediatrician on the National Alliance of Drug Endangered Children and at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx.

The approach to drug-endangered children varies based on the drug and how it endangers the child. A methamphetamine lab may pose much greater immediate risks to children than marijuana plants, for example, because the chemicals used to make meth can catch fire and explode.

But more importantly, caregivers' parenting ability varies greatly depending on whether they abuse the drugs they produce.

"Personal use of the drug implies impairment from substance abuse," said Grant, "Growth alone implies less impairment."

Overall, Koren said, the new findings lend credence to the idea that the decision to remove children from parents' custody must be weighed carefully.

"This should not become a way to punish parents by punishing the kids," he said.

SOURCE: bit.ly/oBOu8h Journal of Pediatrics, online July 22, 2011.

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