In Vinton County, Ohio, Rachel Martin talks to an elementary school principal about the crisis’ effects on students, and meets a woman who got custody of her grandson after an upsetting discovery.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Elementary school teachers get a glimpse into the family lives of many children. You may see the side effects on a kid whose parents are unemployed or getting divorced. Now imagine a school where one small kid after another comes from families facing drug addiction. Rachel Martin has the view from inside a school in southeastern Ohio in a devastated community she’s focused on this week. And a word of caution – some details in this story are disturbing.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: When a parent is fighting addiction, sometimes the only place their kids feel safe is school. And teachers and staff are the first to see signs that something’s not right.
MARY ANN HALE: They’ll just walk into the office and start crying, and they hug you. And you sit down and talk with them and find out what’s going on in their secret little world.
MARTIN: This is Mary Ann Hale. She is the principal at West Elementary School in Vinton County. She tells me that the school is aware of about 60 kids who’ve been directly affected by the drug crisis here. Sometimes the children are so overwhelmed they just come out and say what’s going on. Most of the time, though, she has to read the signs.
HALE: A slide in their academic behaviors and then also aggression, crying or kids talking about suicide.
MARTIN: In elementary school?
HALE: Yes. We’ve been dealing with one of those this year. Mom’s an addict. Dad kind of went sideways when Mom left, and Grandma was raising the little girl. Yeah.
MARTIN: This happens a lot in Vinton County. Parents are too consumed with addiction to care for their kids, and other family members step in – usually grandparents.
Hi. I’m Rachel.
MARTIN: The school principal introduces us to a woman who has asked us to call her Angela instead of her real name in order to protect her family’s privacy. We find an empty classroom and sit down at a table. Kids run around in the hallway outside. Angela looks tired. She tells us she’ll be 60 this year, but she looks a lot older than that. Her daughter has been on and off drugs for years. And recently, it got so bad with meth that Angela and her husband are now taking care of their grandson. We’re calling him Billy. She remembers what it was like right after he was born.
ANGELA: One day she brought him to the house when he was in diapers. He was – he was about a year old, and he had a smell to him. And he was beet red like he’s been out in the sun. She had him in a meth house, and the chemicals is what burned his skin – made him red.
MARTIN: That part of Billy’s story is harrowing enough, but it takes an even darker turn as we keep talking. Angela says her daughter was living with a boyfriend at one point – not Billy’s father, some other guy. One day, Billy went to his grandmother complaining about pain. And we should note what you’re about to hear involves an allegation of child sexual abuse.
ANGELA: He told me – says, Grandma, my bottom hurts. I says, well, you got diarrhea again? ‘Cause every so often, he’d get it. Nope. He says, I don’t. And so I check him out, and I see his rectum was bigger than what it should be. And he had a tear at the bottom part. Her fella that she’s living with did things he shouldn’t have to him. And then I went and filed a report, and it did a heck of a number on him. He don’t like talking to strangers. When I got him, he would not go close to a guy. And even his grandpa he shied away from.
MARTIN: Angela and her husband got custody of Billy at the end of April.
ANGELA: When he started staying at the house, he would wet the bed. And he’d – like I said, he’d have nightmares. And, still, he won’t sleep in a room by himself.
MARTIN: Does he sleep with you guys in your bedroom?
ANGELA: He sleeps on the couch, and I’m there because I never know when he’s going to have his nightmares.
MARTIN: He’s awfully lucky to have you, though.
ANGELA: I hope so. He means the world to me. I don’t know how to – I just keep hoping she’s going change. As she said on the phone, you guys took my boy away from me, and now I ain’t got nothing, she says. And she’s back on the meth again.
MARTIN: I’m sorry.
Angela asks if I want to meet Billy. She goes to get him from his class. He comes in and slouches down into his grandma’s lap. His hands are fighting in the pockets of his camouflaged-patterned sweatshirt.
ANGELA: You can talk to them, honey.
MARTIN: Billy’s head is down. He doesn’t really want to talk.
ANGELA: What’s the matter? You seem down in the dumps.
BILLY: I’m waiting to get back to class.
MARTIN: You can go.
ANGELA: All right.
MARTIN: It was nice to meet you.
ANGELA: I’ll see you at home. He’s been that way since he’s seen his mom the other day.
ANGELA: Yeah. He stays that way for about a week or two. Yeah, it takes a little bit for him to come back out of it again.
REBECCA SMALLWOOD: Now we’re getting, you know, the ramifications of kids that don’t have parents – kids that live in alternate environments, whatever that may be.
MARTIN: This is Rebecca Smallwood. She’s a counselor here at West Elementary. She has seen a lot of kids like Billy come through this school.
SMALLWOOD: With Dad because Mom’s gone, Mom ’cause Dad’s gone – grandparents, aunt, foster care. And that kind of disruption and what it does to a student forever – it’s huge. You just can’t – you can’t use enough adjectives to describe what that does.
MARTIN: With that, the school day is over. We hear kids running through the halls of West Elementary. The school secretary on the PA system starts to make announcements.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: They go home with Darson (ph). (Unintelligible) Grandma’s today.
MARTIN: For many of the kids in Vinton County, school is their only safe space. It’s where there is structure and regular meals and people who keep track of their lives. Very literally, they know who drops them off and picks them up every single day.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).
MARTIN: But school is almost over. It’s summertime. So I asked the principal, Mary Ann Hale, what she does now. Her answer – we worry.
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INSKEEP: Rachel Martin in Vinton County, Ohio.
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