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Towns pitch in to save 'meth orphans' of Appalachia

As drug busts rise, locals build foster homes and donate toys to help children left behind after arrests

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Meat Camp, N.C. - It is a disturbing scene that plays out all too often across the hog hollows of Appalachia. Authorities raid illicit meth labs set up in rickety trailers and mountain shacks: Using hoses, scrubs, and soap, they decontaminate children on the spot and throw away tainted blankets and teddy bears.

The loss of personal items may seem like a small price for the crimes of their parents, but for many experts, it symbolizes the plight of the region's growing ranks of "meth orphans:" losing their childhoods to what's called the "scourge of the mountains."

Now, however, a growing number of communities across Appalachia - where methamphetamine use has become a virtual pandemic - are finding ways to care for the hundreds of children separated each year from their parents as a result of drug busts.

In some towns, residents are building group homes and taking in the children. In other areas, business people and Brownie troops are donating clothes and toys to replace at least some of the contaminated belongings that have been discarded. And in places where as many as 60 percent of meth lab busts involve children, authorities are now changing their tactics to take into account the welfare of broken families when making arrests.

"It's become a rescue mission," says Betty Dotson-Lewis, a historian in Somersville, W.Va. "Our communities are having to assume the responsibility to save these children."

The task is a large one. The underworld of meth labs, in which people combine or "cook" household chemicals with readily available over-the-counter drugs to produce powerful stimulants, has become a significant problem nationwide. But is particularly entrenched here in the mountains of Appalachia.

Up Meat Camp Road in this steep valley just outside Boone, N.C., for instance, black-painted pickup trucks and broken-down shacks are the outward manifestations of a hollow where "there's six labs cooking right now," says Harry Ray, a car mechanic who's lived in the valley most of his life.

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