Sara Whitney (left) and Nancy Bellamy are investigators for the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney.<
February 28, 2012
Sara Whitney has been a front line warrior in the war against drug abuse. She began as a paralegal with Putnam's Prosecuting Attorney in 1997, and became an investigator for that office about five years ago.
"In southern West Virginia, we had been losing one person a day from pill overdoses," she told Putnam Rotarians today.
Whitney's focus has been on the young victims of the drug war who suffer neglect and abuse because of their home circumstances.
She deals with families, she says, "because we often are dealing with teenagers who have learned the behavior from their parents.
"We're talking about kids who are in a chaotic home life.
"You have a parent who is not worried about their water bill being paid, their heating bill being paid. They're worried about where they are going to get their next fix.
"When cops are responding to a home where there is a domestic violence situation between mom and dad, but little Johnny is in the corner watching, he's a victim too. And he's going to grow up learning that same behavior.
"The four-year-old playing in the street: [it] could be [that] mom is busy and the child slipped out. But if the police have responded time after time, we probably have an issue.
"Pay attention when you have a kid who -- you've never met them -- is hugging you and they're trying to get your attention, because, probably there's something more going on in that kid's life.
"When they get to school, when they get to the ball fields, when they get to social situations, these kids are the ones who are in trouble. They have behavior issues because they don't know how to act. No one has ever taught them that this is the way you act, or this is how you react when someone does something.
"They're more likely to experience neglect, the physical abuse, the sexual abuse, the emotional abuse from their parents, their care givers.
"They are more likely to end up with a grandparent or a neighbor or somebody else caring for them -- whomever they can find.
"If you have more than one child in a home, then the older ones are caring for the younger ones.
"They don't talk. They just look at you, because they've been told, 'You can't talk to anybody, because if you talk to somebody then CPS is going to come and they're going to take you from us.' It's ingrained in them," she said.
Whitney recalled a recent case where a mother rolled over, passed out drunk, and smothered her baby.
In a Putnam County case, a child with cystic fibrosis had no medication. The mother, however, had 29 medications for herself. "This mom's priority was herself, not her kids."
In a hospital in a neighboring county, a mother was caught unhooking an IV for her baby and drawing the medication into a syringe for her own use.
"Meth labs are on the rise," Whitney told the group. "One of the things that we saw with meth labs really early on is the security: You have a shack. But you have security all over the place. You have cameras -- they know you're coming before you ever get there.
"We look for dental care, for kids whose teeth are just rotting out of their heads.
"Everything the kids touch is in their mouths. When you have drugs in the home, they're usually where kids are going to get to them..Kids breathe faster, than adults. Their hearts beat faster. When they're exposed to chemicals, the intake is faster."
Attitudes toward drugs have changed among teenagers, Whitney said.
"When we were in school 20 years ago," she said, "you knew who used drugs. You knew who that group was. Now, you don't.
"We're dealing with teenagers who, when you ask them. 'Do you have a drug problem?' they say, 'No.'
"So, if we 'drug test' you, you're going to be clean?'
"'Weeell . . . No.'
"'So you have a drug issues?'
"'No! It's just pot.'"
Drug Endangered Children began as a national movement in 2004, and Whitney meets quarterly with the West Virginia DEC at the State Police Academy, and she represents the Prosecutor with the state Children's Justice Task Force
She also talks with parents, with teachers, to anyone who will listen. She is available to speak with church groups, with schools, and civic clubs.
It still "takes a village to raise a child," and the close communities of a generation ago may still be one of the strongest weapons in the war against drug abuse. "We encourage you to be the nosey neighbor," said Sara Whitney. "There are many red flags in drug abuse."