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Motherisk News: New research questions automatic removal of children living in grow ops

TORONTO - Children living in drug-producing homes may not be exposed to the alarming health risk widely believed to exist, according to new research from the Motherisk Program at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). The researchers found the majority of children removed from these homes were healthy and drug free. The research is published in the July 25 advance online edition of the Journal of Pediatrics.

Children found in homes with marijuana-growing operations or makeshift methamphetamine laboratories in the Greater Toronto Area are routinely identified by police and referred to the local Children's Aid Society (CAS), which usually removes the children from the home and separates them from their parent(s). These children are sometimes placed into foster care.

In 2006, York Region CAS and York Regional Police asked Motherisk to develop a program to follow such children and to assess their general health and well-being with a specific focus on illicit-drug exposure.

Between January 2006 and January 2010, 75 children from 46 different homes were evaluated by Motherisk's follow-up clinic. The children ranged in age from two months to 15 years. Eighty per cent of the homes were marijuana-growing operations or homes where large quantities of the drug were found, while the remaining homes were engaged in cocaine or amphetamine production or had multiple drugs - including marijuana, cocaine, MDMA or heroin - being produced or stored.

While hair follicle testing identified exposure to illicit drugs in a third of the children, the vast majority showed no symptoms of this exposure. In fact, the health problems found in this population were actually fewer than those in the general Canadian population.

Previous research shows risks associated with a methamphetamine lab differ significantly from those associated with marijuana-growing operations where children are exposed primarily to plants. While meth labs may allow exposure to dangerous chemicals and possible explosions, grow ops pose risks that are similar to those affecting children living on farms.

"Our research showed that these kids are actually doing alright compared to the Canadian norms," says study author Dr. Gideon Koren, Director of Motherisk and Senior Scientist at SickKids, who explains this finding may be because people operating grow ops often have lucrative incomes and higher socioeconomic status than the general population. "Making any generalization - either removing all these kids or none of these kids - should not be automatic. The decision should be made following detailed assessment on a case-by-case basis."

Koren suggests removal be based on solid evidence that the risk of remaining with the parent(s) outweighs the risk of separation; emotional difficulties may be caused by the separation itself, while additional emotional and physical issues may arise if the child is placed into foster care.

"Taking a small child from his or her parents in a well-adapted environment causes fear, anxiety, confusion and sadness - everything that comes from separation," says Koren, who is also Professor of Paediatrics, Pharmacology, Pharmacy and Medical Genetics at the University of Toronto. "Safety issues may require the child to be removed from the physical location of drug production and the child may also need to be seized from the parents for legal reasons. However, there is no medical justification to automatically separate them from their parents," he adds.

"In the early 2000s, York Region CAS had to unexpectedly deal with many drug-producing homes," explains Patrick Lake, Executive Director of York Region Children's Aid Society. "When police action revealed the presence of children, York Region CAS was called to protect the best interest of the child. While we assessed health concerns, along with the child's physical and emotional well-being, little was known at the time about the long-term effects on children living in these environments. We were eager to participate in this study to improve our knowledge and refine our approach. Since 2006, York Region CAS has learned more about the impact of home-based drug operations and the effects on children. We have developed a more customized and comprehensive process to determine best response, on a case-by-case basis, while looking for ways to safely maintain children with their parents or relatives."

"York Regional Police is proud of the success we have achieved in significantly reducing the number of marijuana grow operations and clandestine labs in York Region since 2002. That success is due in part to assistance from our community partners like the York Region Children's Aid Society and the Motherisk Program," says Deputy Chief of Operations Bruce Herridge. "From a police perspective, there are concerns beyond just the medical implications for children found living in these conditions. The study is informative from a medical perspective and is useful to York Regional Police in our ongoing efforts to keep our communities and citizens safe, particularly our children."

Between 2000 and 2003, about 10,000 children lived in homes with adults who conducted illegal drug production or "crop sitting" in Ontario.

In 2006, Alberta passed its Drug Endangered Children Act, the first legislation of its kind in Canada. The Act enables authorities to automatically seize children for up to two days, even if this is solely based on suspicion. Ontario's Bill 84 Act to amend the Child and Family Services Act has been referred to the Standing Committee on Justice Policy.

The next step for this research, says Koren, is to conduct prospective cohort studies in this population of children.

Motherisk is a clinical research and teaching program that provides evidence-based information and guidance about the safety or risk to the developing fetus or infant as a result of maternal exposure to drugs, chemicals, diseases, radiation or environmental agents.

The study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Ontario Graduate Scholarship Program and University of Toronto Fellowships and SickKids Foundation.

About The Hospital for Sick Children

The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) is recognized as one of the world's foremost paediatric health-care institutions and is Canada's leading centre dedicated to advancing children's health through the integration of patient care, research and education. Founded in 1875 and affiliated with the University of Toronto, SickKids is one of Canada's most research-intensive hospitals and has generated discoveries that have helped children globally. Its mission is to provide the best in complex and specialized family-centred care; pioneer scientific and clinical advancements; share expertise; foster an academic environment that nurtures health-care professionals; and champion an accessible, comprehensive and sustainable child health system. SickKids is proud of its vision for Healthier Children. A Better World. For more information, please visit www.sickkids.ca.

About SickKids Research & Learning Tower

SickKids Research & Learning Tower will bring together researchers from different scientific disciplines and a variety of clinical perspectives, to accelerate discoveries, new knowledge and their application to child health - a different concept from traditional research building designs. TheTower will physically connect SickKids science, discovery and learning activities to its clinical operations. Designed by award-winning architects Diamond + Schmitt Inc. and HDR Inc. with a goal to achieve LEED? Gold Certification for sustainable design, the Tower will create an architectural landmark as the eastern gateway to Toronto's Discovery District. SickKids Research & Learning Tower is funded by a grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and community support for the ongoing fundraising campaign. For more information, please visit www.buildsickkids.com.

For more information, please contact:

Matet Nebres
The Hospital for Sick Children
416-813-6380
matet.nebres@sickkids.ca

Suzanne Gold
The Hospital for Sick Children
416-813-7654, ext. 2059
suzanne.gold@sickkids.ca

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