Child of the epidemic – Part 5 of 5

From The Oregonian, October 7, 2004

Child of the epidemic is part 5 of 5 UNNECESSARY EPIDEMIC: A Five-Part Series by The Oregonian – 2004 / 2005
SEE – All five stories here.

This series of articles, written largely by Steve Suo, illuminated and encouraged Oregon’s legal strategy toward addiction which uses institutional punishment approach versus a medical approach which might offer an individual’s recovery as a primary goal. As of Spring of 2011, Oregon’s strategy has had no affect on the number of arrests or convictions for drug possession or distribution, and has resulted in thousands of deaths, and billions of misspent tax dollars.

Her mother’s addiction to meth, which began before MaKayla Harris’ birth, ruptures her family and leaves a void at the heart of a Coos Bay girlhood

The day her mother vanished again, trading a promising run at sobriety for yet another hit of methamphetamine, 13-year-old MaKayla Harris joined friends at a parking-lot carnival.

She didn’t want to think about the magnitude of her mother’s fall this time, how close they’d come to reuniting as a family. Mostly, she wanted to forget that this was Mother’s Day.

MaKayla remembers scanning the rides. She picked the most frightening: The Zipper. She climbed into one of the steel cages and pulled the padded bar down across her lap. The ride spun like a giant propeller. Her cage whirled and rocked. Beneath her, the coastal community of her childhood blurred.

At first, MaKayla held on, white-knuckled, and screamed. She rode The Zipper more than 15 times that afternoon, coaxing friend after friend aboard with her. Soon, she let her hands hang free.

“At a certain point,” she said, “it’s not scary anymore.”

During MaKayla’s lifetime, methamphetamine permeated her hometown on Oregon’s southern coast despite concerted efforts by local law enforcement to stop it. Now, in towns and cities throughout the nation, more than 1.3 million people use meth.

MaKayla’s 15 years of life span the meth epidemic. Her mother became addicted at its beginning in the late 1980s, and her relapses throughout MaKayla’s childhood mimic the rise and fall of the meth trade in the West.

Tens of thousands of children are suffering the consequences. In the worst cases, they endure horrific abuse and die at the hands of their parents. Many more are neglected while their parents get high, too distracted to attend to them. And they shuttle between relatives and foster care, competing for their parents’ affection against a cheap and plentiful drug, each time hoping that a child’s love will prevail.

It rarely does.

MaKayla’s life was filled with broken promises. Over and over, her mother vowed to stay clean, only to retreat to the drug, then to flophouses or jail. MaKayla’s little brothers disappeared to foster care — and emerged in her troubling dreams.

MaKayla found shelter and comfort with her grandparents, Albert and Patricia Muse. Over the years, she persevered by combining a young girl’s strong will with a stubborn faith in her mother.

But as she grew older, that faith also threatened to hinder her. Spinning on the carnival ride in the spring of 2003, MaKayla struggled to let go of her hopes for her mother and brace for a future on her own.

A tenuous childhood

MaKayla Harris was born Aug. 30, 1989, with big hazel eyes and a squeak for a cry.

Her 27-year-old mother, Debbie Harris, looked down at her firstborn with relief. MaKayla was healthy.

Debbie had become pregnant with MaKayla after more than a year of injecting methamphetamine. She didn’t know at the time who the father was. When Debbie was arrested on drug charges five months into the pregnancy, an alarmed child welfare worker made a note in Debbie’s file: “We need to gain custody of that child due to her serious meth problem.”

But Debbie cleaned up in jail and was released early. She finished out her pregnancy at her parents’ aging blue ranch home in North Bend. Debbie was raised in that home. Smart and popular with curling-ironed blond bangs, she used to spend afternoons riding dirt bikes with her friends on the sand dunes nearby.

She married right out of high school, wanting to re-create the stable family life that her millworker father and homemaker mother had made for her and her siblings. But when she was 24, her husband suddenly left.

Debbie recalled seeking solace in local bars. Friends showed her how to tighten her shirt sleeve, jab a needle into a vein and plunge in a hit of meth. Debbie felt a rush of euphoria. Her insecurities slipped away. She felt like superwoman. She was hooked.

Addiction quickly overtook her, and now, Debbie hoped MaKayla’s birth would be a turning point. She qualified for welfare and moved with MaKayla from her parents’ home into a subsidized apartment.

Yet before long, Debbie left her infant daughter with sitters while she drank at Gussie’s Saloon. Early in 1991, Debbie met Morgan Vick there. She was 29. He was a blue-eyed 21-year-old with a mellow swagger. They used cocaine together. She returned to meth.

When MaKayla was 3, Debbie married Morgan while both were jailed — she for a parole violation, he for drug possession. MaKayla, who had stayed at her grandparents’ home, soon moved back with her mom. She remembers a second-story apartment off a main drag in North Bend. It became the scene of a recurring nightmare: MaKayla sees a small child standing in the parking lot below. She looks away from the child and hears an explosion. When she looks again, all that is left are the child’s slippers. They are made of ash.

MaKayla does not dwell on haunting images. She tells instead about walking to preschool with her mom, playing board games with her stepfather, or visiting the park with her mom and brother, born in 1994.

By the time she turned 7 in August 1996, MaKayla glimpsed her family’s darker side. She saw her stepfather violently shove her mother, pregnant with their second son. The baby was born with meth in his blood. MaKayla remembers moving in 1997 — for the third time in as many years — to a cramped apartment near Pony Slough. Debbie had promised authorities she would start over again — without Morgan. But Morgan returned.

That summer, MaKayla walked in on her parents. She remembers the smell, like cigarette smoke mixed with something spoiled. The odor sharpened near the open bathroom door. She saw her mother and stepfather inside arguing, caught up in the contents of a spoon. They brushed past to let her use the toilet. Her mother looked away.

MaKayla tried her best to cope. She remembers walking her toddler brother down the block for ice cream, holding the little boy’s hand, while her parents were strung out in the apartment.

“Half the time, we just ate snacks. There was lots of food. They just didn’t fix us meals,” MaKayla recalled. “That’s when I think it was really bad. They’d sleep for days, get up and go to the bathroom and sleep again.

“They were good parents, when they weren’t high.”

Disappointment, devastation

MaKayla did not stay long at the Pony Slough apartment. She says she was scared by her parents’ activities and the rats that scurried around the apartment grounds. She asked her grandparents to take her in again.

Eventually, Morgan beat Debbie bloody in an argument over a meth pipe. Debbie, pregnant again, sobbed as she packed her sons’ clothes for foster care. Morgan went to jail for assault; Debbie went to jail, too, for drug possession and child endangerment.

Debbie threw herself into drug treatment, parenting classes and domestic-violence counseling. Supervised by authorities, she got her children back in August 1998. A month later, her third son was born — healthy.

MaKayla, 9, started fourth grade while Debbie fulfilled her community service work at her oldest son’s Head Start program. In early April 1999, a staff person nominated Debbie to be Parent of the Year. “I am working very hard at trying to be the best mom I can possibly be,” Debbie wrote in her award application.

Just a few weeks later, as school was letting out, MaKayla was summoned to the office from her classroom. She figured her mother had come to fetch her. Instead, a stranger greeted her.

Get your stuff, MaKayla recalled the stranger saying. You’re going to foster care because your mother is in jail.

MaKayla returned, scared and bewildered, to her emptying classroom. Crying, she bundled up her books and told her teacher that she had to go. Friends in the hallway asked her what was wrong. She wouldn’t say.

“I didn’t want people to think badly of me because of my family,” she said.

Debbie served a brief sentence for letting Morgan visit in violation of her probation. When she got out, she started using meth again. MaKayla spent two weeks with her brothers at the foster home, building forts to distract herself. Her grandparents retrieved MaKayla but couldn’t handle all four children. Her brothers stayed behind.

MaKayla’s grandparents tried to raise her spirits. That summer, MaKayla’s grandfather got out his old record albums and taught her to do the twist.

“He’s what held me together,” MaKayla recalled.

Days later, on the first morning of fifth grade, she awoke to commotion. Her grandfather had died of a heart attack in the night. MaKayla remembers how still he was in his casket. But she had no final words for him. All she could do was cry.

His death galvanized Debbie. She weaned herself from drugs and was reunited again with her four children in April 2000. For a time, life seemed to stabilize. She resumed her relationship with Morgan, who worked as a logger. They grilled steaks outside while MaKayla and her brothers played in the yard.

In early March 2001, when MaKayla was 11, she noticed that her mother seemed distracted, unfocused. Sitting at their kitchen table, MaKayla asked if she was using drugs again. Debbie denied it.

But, in the pre-dawn hours of March 29, police found Debbie passed out in her van at The Mill Casino. She was nearly dead from a meth overdose.

MaKayla visited Debbie in jail. She remembers her message to her mother that day: You lied to me. And I could’ve helped you.

A prayer for renewal

MaKayla stood outside the North Bend Middle School cafeteria, surrounded by a half-dozen other girls, and plotted their lunchtime mission one December day in 2002.

Now an eighth-grader, MaKayla had learned to take charge. She occupied the center of a large social web at this timeworn middle school. She pulled her long, honey-brown hair up in a loose bun and decorated her sweatshirts and hip-huggers with safety pins. Other girls followed her lead, attracted to MaKayla’s individuality.

At 13, MaKayla thrived on their attention. She survived her mother’s overdose with roller-skating parties, sleepovers and church youth-group outings. She decorated her mother’s old bedroom at her grandma’s house with snapshots of classmates and posters of pop rockers.

But sometimes her sadness welled up. She cried watching “A Christmas Carol.” Tiny Tim reminded her of her little blond brothers, who were in foster care.

MaKayla missed them. She had not seen the boys since the spring, when Debbie got out of jail, and a judge terminated her parental rights. Debbie filed an appeal to get the boys back. She was attending treatment support groups and living with a friend from her church.

“With God as my witness, you’ll never see me in court again for drugs,” Debbie wrote to the judge. “My children are everything to me.”

MaKayla prayed that this time her mother would succeed.

On Dec. 10, MaKayla arrived to baby-sit at her mom’s church-sponsored treatment group. She noticed her stepfather, just out of prison, walk in with a friend from his drug-using days. MaKayla knew that if her stepfather relapsed, her mother might follow. She found her mother alone, crying, in the cold parking lot.

Debbie remembers the fear in her daughter’s hazel eyes.

Honey, she recalls telling her, I will not go back.

Oh, Mama, MaKayla pleaded, promise?

At an age when many kids rebuff their parents’ attention, MaKayla was renewing her crucial place in her mother’s life. Debbie told her she would come over with Morgan on Dec. 16.

At dinnertime, MaKayla set up folding tables, too heavy for her grandma to carry. Patricia, 61, sat in her recliner, weak after multiple heart attacks and a stroke.

MaKayla came over and sat in her grandpa’s old recliner. She dipped her chicken strips in ranch dressing. She guessed at the “Jeopardy” clues on television. The evening wore on with no sign of Debbie and Morgan.

Finally, MaKayla’s grandma said gently, “Looks like they’re not coming, Sis.”

MaKayla stared at the television. If she heard her grandma, she didn’t show it.

An addict’s guilt

The next evening, MaKayla backed out of her plans to baby-sit at her parents’ treatment support group. Debbie and Morgan, not realizing they had let her down the night before, were frustrated.

Morgan, blue eyes melancholy beneath his prison-shaved head, said he had been looking forward to seeing MaKayla. He said he just wanted another chance with the kids.

“Even though we were high, we never abused them physically. Mentally — I guess there was mental abuse,” he said. “It was really sad.”

Debbie sat beside Morgan at the support group in a chilly church basement, their arms touching. When it was Debbie’s turn to speak, she described the force that lures her back to meth.

“I have a lot of guilt,” Debbie said. “I sit and think about the kids and stuff, and it’s really hard. Until you’ve done what I’ve done, I guess you really can’t understand that type of guilt.”

Over the winter, Debbie saw MaKayla sporadically. She and Morgan were living with their pastor, Ivan Sharp. Sharp was trying to help them rebuild. But Morgan was drinking again. He and Debbie were fighting, and she feared a relapse. She was impressed by a couple who invited her and Morgan for dinner. The couple’s toddler ate off a glass plate without breaking it. The parents spoke respectfully to their kids.

Debbie recognized a simple truth about MaKayla: “All she ever wanted from me was to stop using drugs. I look at my daughter — what a blessing. Why couldn’t I appreciate that? Why couldn’t that have been enough?”

Debbie landed a greeter’s job at a discount grocery store. She quickly took over a check stand. “Deborah,” the store owner wrote on her first paycheck, “we are so pleased to have you with us.”

“I could have that,” Debbie said. “There was such a bond between me and my children even though I was an addict. But the emotional part wasn’t there.”

The state garnished Debbie’s wages by $146 a month to help support MaKayla. Debbie bought her daughter a Valentine’s Day gift — a box of chocolates and a stuffed skunk holding a rose.

“Not much,” Debbie said. “But she knows I love her.”

The end of childhood

MaKayla headed into Wal-Mart in search of poster board for a school assignment in late March 2003. She passed a large display of Easter baskets, just like the ones she and her mom had given her brothers on their last visit before the state permanently severed Debbie’s parental rights to them.

MaKayla said being in the store reminded her of a dream: She is shopping and encounters her brothers in one of the aisles. They don’t recognize her.

But MaKayla shrugged and said she thought her mother was ready to reunite their family. After all, she was winning awards at work for good customer service and balancing her till. She had left Morgan again and moved in with a friend. “She’s slowly getting better,” MaKayla said. “She just needs to get a house.”

On Easter, the anniversary of losing the boys, Debbie visited MaKayla. They sat together on the bed in Debbie’s old room. She gave MaKayla an Easter gift. She remembers asking MaKayla if this day was hard for her. MaKayla hesitated and then looked intently at her mom. She admitted that it was.

You don’t have to be so tough, Debbie told MaKayla. It’s OK to cry.

No, it’s not, MaKayla answered.

Debbie struggled to reassure MaKayla. Mama’s trying, she told MaKayla. I’m really trying to make things right.

Three weeks later, Debbie was gone.

Early on the Saturday morning before Mother’s Day, she showed up at the friend’s apartment where she had been staying. Her blond hair was disheveled. She was limping. The friend knew that Debbie had started hanging out with a meth dealer. That morning, she said she asked Debbie to move out.

The friend called to tell MaKayla’s grandma that Debbie had left. When Debbie didn’t visit on Mother’s Day, MaKayla knew in her heart that she had returned to using meth. MaKayla went with her friends to the parking-lot carnival and rode The Zipper, her dreams of reuniting with her mom and brothers spinning away.

MaKayla heard only secondhand reports about her mother in the following weeks. MaKayla’s child welfare caseworker learned that Debbie had relapsed. He told MaKayla and her grandma that MaKayla should not ever plan to live with Debbie again. MaKayla’s aunt and uncle agreed to take her in if anything happened to her grandma. With those plans in place, he told MaKayla, she had reached an age where the state would no longer closely monitor her case.

On her last day at North Bend Middle School in June, MaKayla spent the lunch hour licking ice cream bars with her friends in the warm stillness of a deserted hallway. For a while, it was as if she could remain suspended in childhood forever.

But after two more classes, the final bell sounded. Several students whooped, but MaKayla didn’t react. She followed the wave of kids out of the classroom. She milled around in the throng, moving toward the exit. She hugged friends as they passed. Tears welled in her eyes.

The school doors swung open. The afternoon light poured in. MaKayla walked out into the glare.


MaKayla sat on the mottled brown carpet at a girlfriend’s apartment, music videos playing on the television, and listened to three of her friends talk about dieting, school and boys. She made a bracelet out of black electrical tape and jumped in when the conversation interested her.

More than a year had passed since she walked out the doors of her middle school. MaKayla was nearly 15 now. Her hair was shorter and softly layered, a more mature look. She had dyed it black underneath, still inventing her own styles.

MaKayla had spent the summer after eighth grade wondering where her mother was. The day after her 14th birthday, Aug. 30, 2003, MaKayla heard the front door open. In walked her mom. MaKayla ran to hug her. Debbie apologized.

Debbie later said she had turned back to meth to escape her creeping fear that she would lose the appeal for her sons. In fact, she did lose the appeal, but MaKayla’s only inkling was a letter that came to her grandma’s house from her mother’s attorney. It sat unopened all summer next to her grandma’s recliner.

MaKayla was relieved to see her mother, but said she also felt scared that Debbie “would just go out and never talk to me again.”

So that fall, MaKayla tried to concentrate instead on her freshman year. Her grandma took her to pick out a black off-the-shoulder dress for her first homecoming dance. She got C’s in science and English but otherwise pulled A’s and B’s. She wrote down goals in the workbook for her favorite class, the psychology of success: Go to college. Become a forensic scientist. Travel.

In her locker, she stuck an old photograph of her mom, vibrant in a Harley-Davidson jacket, the way she looks when she’s not using meth. In her workbook, MaKayla recorded a wish: “My brothers would live with me.”

She also wrote about a deepening sense of powerlessness, about times when her eyes water, her body shakes, and “I can’t think straight . . . everything runs through my mind.”

Midway through the school year, MaKayla’s focus blurred.

She spent evenings e-mailing friends rather than doing homework. Her mother began showing up more often after another jail term in February. Together, they sorted through MaKayla’s brothers’ baby clothes and held a garage sale. Meanwhile, MaKayla’s relationship with her grandma frayed for a time as MaKayla pushed the rules, and her grandma wearied of pushing back.

In April, North Bend police caught MaKayla and several friends smoking pot in the woods near MaKayla’s home. MaKayla appeared before Judge Richard Barron, the same Coos County judge who had terminated her mother’s rights to the boys after one too many promises of reform. He lectured MaKayla and suspended her driving privileges.

MaKayla later said she smoked the marijuana because, “I thought everything was bad. Bad life. Bad everything.” After doing it, she felt remorse. She said she would “definitely not” try pot again and has no intention of ever trying meth.

But her second term at school had already suffered. She failed English and science. She tried to make up the classes over the summer but didn’t finish them. Instead, she hung out with her friends or stayed with her mom on a logging site where Debbie and Morgan lived in a trailer, and Debbie was paid to mind the equipment.

MaKayla considered moving in with her mother. She also thought about living with her 15-year-old friend, Monica Taylor, who has a subsidized apartment with her 9-month-old baby.

Sitting in Monica’s living room in August, MaKayla and her girlfriends were talking about their upcoming sophomore year when the subject shifted.

“Are you going out with Kris?” asked Victoria Hunter, 15, referring to MaKayla’s first significant boyfriend. “That’s so cute.”

Monica, cuddling her baby on her lap, interjected, pinpointing the moment that Kris first kissed MaKayla. “They started going out exactly at 3 o’clock at my house.”

MaKayla reclined on the arm of the couch, the red Converse tennis shoes she’d decorated with marker kicked out in front of her.

She didn’t say anything. She just pulled the tie from her hooded sweatshirt through her teeth and smiled.