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Towns pitch in to save 'meth orphans' of Appalachia

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In and around the valley where Indians once hunted buffalo to trade the meat at the camp up on Snake Mountain Gap, officials have noted one of the greatest concentrations of meth labs in the country. As the meth trade moved West from California and through the heartland over the past 30 years, experts say it's found a home in the region where the Feds and moonshiners once battled it out over another illicit enterprise.

Indeed, officials say a 400 percent rise in meth arrests in Boone alone in the past two years only hints at the scope of a problem that may now be worse than the days of the stills.

And it's children who are increasingly getting wrapped up in the lawless culture - both as participants and innocent bystanders.

Here in North Carolina's Watauga County, for instance, one elementary schoolboy recently recited to his class in detail the recipe to cook meth, to the astonishment of his teacher. In another local case, a boy was working for his parents, removing striker strips from the sides of matchbooks to distill a key ingredient (red phosphorus) used in making the home-brewed drug.

Often, small children are found playing on the floor, where the dangerous fumes congregate. On Dec. 15, investigators in White County, Tenn., found a stash of ingredients under an 11-year-old's mattress - in an area where 80 kids were put into foster care last year.

But children are also playing a part in stopping the scourge: A recent case in Tennessee involved a 14-year-old girl who informed on her parents after they kept telling her younger brother they were going to stop manufacturing meth and never did.

For police, it's sometimes hard to tell the innocent from the lawless: In Myrtle Beach the week before Christmas, police arrested a man and a wife and their two teenage boys after discovering a meth lab in their motel room.

Children caught in the middle

For the most part, though, children are being caught in the middle. In Tennessee some 500 children have been placed in foster care in just the past few years because their parents were arrested for making methamphetamine.

"Our system is overwhelmed right now," says Russ Dedrick, the US attorney in Knoxville, Tenn.

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