NORMAN — A child walks into a classroom, puts his head down on the desk and goes to sleep.
On the outside, it might look like the child is bored or doesn't care.
But this child could be one of hundreds in Oklahoma who are considered “drug-endangered children,” growing up in homes where parents or guardians are exposing them to illegal drugs and the lifestyle that can sometimes accompany addiction and drug trafficking.
Dub Turner, education program director at the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, explained to a group of child welfare workers, law enforcement officers and other child advocates that school might be the only place where this child gets a stable meal.
“And No. 2, that's the only peace and quiet they're going to get,” Turner said.
On Thursday, Turner and other experts spent the day in Norman discussing how law enforcement and child welfare workers can better serve these children.
Child welfare workers from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services were among some of the people in the class, one group that sometimes encounters drug-endangered children.
Out of almost 30,000 investigations that DHS conducted in 2011, 34 percent, or one-third, were children who were removed from homes that had alcohol and or drugs as a condition of removal, according to data provided at the training.
Oklahoma law defines a drug-endangered child as a child “at risk of suffering physical, psychological or sexual harm as a result of the use, possession, distribution, manufacture or cultivation of controlled substances” by a parent or guardian. Under law, this term includes newborns who test positive for drugs — whether illegal drugs or prescription drugs the mother wasn't prescribed.
Turner said that after almost 40 years in law enforcement, he has come to realize the responsibility officers have in protecting drug-endangered children.
In 1995, Turner attended a law enforcement conference in San Francisco and heard a presentation by Sue Webber-Brown, who was one of the first people to lead an awareness effort about drug-endangered children.
“She talked about law enforcement kicking in the door and stepping over the children and handing them off to whoever would take them and the repercussions of that, and I went, ‘Oh my gosh, that's exactly what we've done all these years,'” Turner said. “We got credit for dope and guns and arrests but not saving children.”
Turner said he later arrested three generations of a family — a grandfather, father and son — all cooking methamphetamine. He asked himself what they could have done to help the family.
“We are so focused on arrest and drugs and guns, putting people in jail, getting them off the street, and then all of a sudden, we take those blinders off and get a full view, and we (ask) what have we done over the years and where have we failed,” he said.
Vanessa Price, a law enforcement consultant and retired police officer, told the group on Thursday that helping drug-endangered children isn't necessarily about taking them from their parents.
Rather, it's about creating a safe and nurturing environment for children and helping parents get well so they can care for their children, she said.
When law enforcement officers, child welfare workers and others accept their responsibility to help the drug-endangered children they encounter, they can make an impact, she said.
When White first started a police officer, this wasn't her mindset, she said.
“When I worked a DUI accident and I saw evidence of children in that car, I wasn't thinking to ask, ‘Where are the kids? Who has the kids? Do you have kids? Are you a caretaker?'” she said. “It was all about the arrest. In my later years in professional law enforcement, what I began to realize was, unless you address the whole issue, all we're doing is interrupting the cycle. We're not breaking it.”