Families

ORPHANED BY POT

When the parents get busted, children by the dozens go into foster care

THULASI SRIKANTHAN August 22 2005
Families

ORPHANED BY POT

When the parents get busted, children by the dozens go into foster care

THULASI SRIKANTHAN August 22 2005

ORPHANED BY POT

Families

When the parents get busted, children by the dozens go into foster care

THULASI SRIKANTHAN

SANDI GRIFFITHS sits in the principal’s office looking at the two sisters, 13 and 14, considering the best way to tell them their parents have been arrested and they can’t go home. Just three hours earlier, police had busted their affluent home in York Region, neighbouring Toronto on the north, and uncovered a basement full of marijuana plants. They called Griffiths, a Children’s Aid Society worker, who gathered some clothes for the girls. She stuffed two teddy bears into their suitcases, hoping that would somehow help soften the blow. She is breaking the news to them at the end of the school day, when their classmates are no longer around to ask too many questions or see their tears.

These girls are part of a growing problem across York Region, where Chinese and Vietnamese gangs are using young children and families as fronts for their marijuana operations. In sprawling suburban communities of trim green lawns, freshly paint-Î ed garages and blooming flower beds, Children’s Aid has seized more than 140 children in the past three years, some with marijuana plants in their closets. In an effort to avoid suspicion, gangs have been moving away from their earlier practice of operating in empty houses, says Det. Don Cardwell, head of the region’s grow-op team. Asian families serve as perfect covers, blending into the Chinese-dominated, affluent south end of the region, made up of the towns of Markham, Richmond Hill and Vaughan. Growing marijuana has become a big business in this area, where over the past four years police have seized plants with an estimated street value of $197 million. Lenient fines, short jail times and conditional sentences have let offenders quickly get back into the business, says Insp. Karen Noakes.

As the gangs change their methods, doctors,

are

local police and aid workers ; concerned about the emotional and physical impact on young children from knowing their parents have been arrested and being exposure to mould and chemicals in marijuana grow-ops. “Having a 12-year-old daughter, I can’t imagine what makes these parents do what they do,” Cardwell says. “There can’t be

enough money in the world to expose their kids to these risks.” Dr. Gideon Koren, a pediatric toxicologist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, agrees. He examines children seized in York Region and conducts research to assess the long-term effects. While it will be some time before he can reach a definitive conclusion, Koren knows

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that insecticides used in marijuana operations can cause serious harm. “Nerve gas is made from the same organophosphates that are in the insecticides,” he says. They may inhibit a critical enzyme called cholinesterase in the blood stream. “This restricts important nerve action and can possibly lead to acute poisoning, gastrointestinal, brain and respiratory problems.” Koren says mould, poor ventilation and closed spaces can cause allergic reactions and asthma. “It’s appalling,” he says, “that these people use children as shields.”

Children’s Aid has found children living in disgusting conditions, says Griffiths. In some cases, even in houses that look fine from the outside, bathroom and bedroom walls are covered with mould, weapons and chemical bottles are lying around, there is little furniture, and just mattresses on the floor for beds. “Sometimes, there is no food available, their clothes are dirty and they are living in unsanitary conditions,” says Martin McNamara, CAS’s executive director. Faulty wiring is also a big concern, adds the Child Abuse Unit’s Det. Kevin Byrnes, who is heading an initiative to study a growop’s effects on kids. Eager to circumvent suspiciously high electricity bills, the residents bypass their meters by hooking up straight to the power line. “It’s a dangerous situation,” says Byrnes, leaving children exposed to possible fires or electric shock.

GRIFFITHS IDENTIFIES herself to the two

sisters and asks if they know why she is here. “Does this have anything to do with the cops who came to our house today?” asks one, whose friend had seen police around their house when she went home at lunchtime. Griffiths nods her head. “Your mom and dad have been arrested,” she says. “Do you know why?” Both girls say no. As Griffiths explains, one starts to cry. “My heart broke for them,” she later says. “They were like, ‘Everyone is going to think we are terrible people.’ ” Grow-op children tend to blame themselves when their parents are arrested, Griffiths says. The burden of carrying their family’s secret has already isolated them from most people. “They care about their parents and don’t want to incriminate them,” she says. As a result, children often give rehearsed answers, denying their parents’ criminal involvement. “But how could they not know?” says Griffiths. “The smell of the plants is overwhelming when you

walk into the house.” As she takes the two girls to clear their lockers in case they don’t return to this school, Griffiths answers their questions. Was their mother handcuffed? Will she have to sleep in a jail cell? Then she drives them to a foster home.

Grow-op kids don’t go directly to relatives because of safety concerns and the chance other members of the family are involved in the operation, says McNamara.

‘SOMETIMES

there’s no food available, their clothes are dirty, and they are living in unsanitary conditions’

To gain custody, relatives must undergo drug tests and police checks, and allow Children’s Aid to assess their home, a process that could be finished in less than a week.

Cynthia is one of many foster mothers in Markham who look after children at this stage. She asks that her last name not be used because of a confidentiality agreement signed with the CAS. Kids have arrived at her home as late as 2 a.m. after watching their parents being arrested. “They come in their pyjamas with nothing, and you have to pick them up from that point and make them feel human,” she says. Afraid of incriminating their parents, children generally open up only to other foster children in

the house. “They are very reserved,” says Cynthia, who has taken care of kids as young as 5. “You have to spoon feed them to make them feel comfortable and safe.”

Cynthia, a black Canadian, says her foster kids, all Asian, often face unwanted questions when others see her picking them up from school. “I tell them, ‘You don’t have to say anything, just tell them I’m the babysitter,’ ” she says. More Asian families need to become foster parents, she says. As of now, only three out of 151 foster families in the York Region system are Asian. “That would make it much easier for the children to blend in,” she says. “They would also be in their own culture and eating their own food.” Although many grow-op kids live in unhealthy conditions, Cynthia has also taken in children whose parents send them to private schools and buy them the latest Nike shoes, Gap clothes, and PlayStations. Some children aren’t pleased when she takes them to Wal-Mart or Zellers to buy clothes for their stay. Cynthia wonders about the lessons a child learns growing up in an illegal environment that gives them everything they want. She asks if they’ll wonder, “If mom is doing it, is it okay?” But overall, Cynthia says, “they are well-behaved and ambitious kids.” Even though marijuana use is becoming socially accepted, she adds, that doesn’t justify the situation these kids are in. “It’s different growing marijuana in an open field,” she says, “and growing it in a home with fertilizers, pesticides—and children.” [¡’ll