KOB's Gadi Schwartz shares his thoughts about reporting on a mom who used meth
Posted at: 05/22/2012 1:33 PM
| Updated at: 05/22/2012 7:40 PM
By: Gadi Schwartz, 4 On Your Side
It's about 2 o'clock in the afternoon when I get my first look at Rachel Perea walking down a sidewalk, pushing a stroller.
I recognize her face from the cell phone video that I've watched over a dozen times this past week.
In the video Perea looks different, more like a meth addict as she takes hits of from two glass pipes and blows out heavy white smoke.
Today she just looks like a mom.
As a rule of thumb I try to avoid writing reports in the first person, and as a journalist I do my best to keep my personal feelings in check, but this story developed differently than most.
In the course of following up a 4 On Your Side news tip, I came across cell phone video of what appears to be Perea smoking meth.
The video appears to be taken in a kitchen and begins with Perea holding two pipes, while another woman holds a lighter.
At the bottom of the screen you can see a small boy nearby playing with a dog.
A few seconds into the video the child walks right under the suspected meth pipes and the other woman is heard saying, "baby is going under the bridge."
Perea then takes a hit from the two pipes, exhales and the video ends in black.
New Mexico law requires that anyone who suspects child abuse must report it.
So we did.
I began by calling CYFD's child abuse hotline, where a woman asked me some questions about what I had seen and told me they would get right on it.
After reporting the case to CYFD, I went the Albuquerque Police Department, where I gave a copy of what was turned over to us to Impact Detective John Kelly.
According to a police report taken back in December, a few weeks after the video was recorded, Perea had told another detective that she was in her first trimester of pregnancy.
APD was able to track the man behind the video, Gabriel Montoya, to the Bernalillo County Detention Center where he is being held on kidnapping and child abuse charges for another case involving Perea as the victim.
Montoya told investigators Perea had said she was pregnant with his baby.
Montoya admitted to police that he had supplied Perea with meth the day he shot the video and said when he arrived home Perea was already high.
On Monday morning Detective Kelly drafted up arrest warrants for Perea and Montoya on drug charges and child abuse and set out to find Perea to arrest her.
Police told me the other woman in the video has also been identified and will face charges as well.
On Monday afternoon, shortly after I saw Perea go into her home, I watched detectives knock on her front door.
Perea answered and she let officers inside. Soon I could hear her as she began to cry.
I overheard Detective Kelly try to calm her by saying, "this is the worst part of our job... but the safety of that child comes before anything else."
Within minutes a case worker from CYFD arrived to pick up Perea's two-year-old son. When the caseworker came out holding the boy, I recognized him as the boy in the video.
The boy was smiling, happy, and looked healthy, completely oblivious to what was going on.
He grinned at a somber-looking detective who came by to help put him in a car seat and say goodbye.
After the boy was buckled in and driven away, Perea was led out of her home cuffed with her hands behind her back.
As she walked by I tried asking her about the video. She called me a bastard and told me to leave her alone.
She was still crying as they drove her to jail - and I found myself thinking, who am I to interfere with this mother and her child?
Police, social workers, doctors, teachers, lawyers and even former drug dealers have told me that at times they have felt the exact same way when dealing with children in these types of situations.
In some law enforcement circles these kids are known as "Drug Endangered Children." They are the children of addicts who are often neglected and overlooked by their parents as they grow up in a life full of choices that they did not make.
In researching this story, I met a woman named Sarah Hellums from Artesia who grew up as a classic example of a drug endangered child. At an early age Sarah's father smuggled and dealt drugs. Her mother died from a drug overdose.
And Sarah also knows what it feels like to have a child taken away. She lost custody of her daughter because of her addiction to meth.
"Last time I went to jail my daughter was with me," Sarah said as she started to tell me about her past. "It seemed like it was never going to end."
Today Sarah and her husband Jared Hellums are both clean and are advocates for drug endangered children. Jared also battled with addiction and was heavily involved with drugs. He told me about times in which he would deliver drugs to addicts and see children living in deplorable conditions.
"I've sold drugs in houses where I've gone in and there are four babies running around naked, peeing on themselves, pooping on themselves," Jared said.
"Even being high, selling drugs, it makes you sick to your stomach."
Jared told me at some point seeing kids in those kinds of conditions becomes so overwhelming that you do whatever you can to force them from your mind.
While Jared talked about his past experiences, I kept thinking back to the times in which I've covered drug raids without a thought as to what actually happens to the children found inside.
Per policy, the Children, Youth and Families Department is understandably guarded about information on individual cases involving minors. As a reporter, that makes following children through the legal system nearly impossible.
And I have to admit, without being able to gather solid information, those kids often become side notes to my stories. I wish now that we could adequetly portray them as what they really are - children who are much more important than the quantity of drugs, money or guns seized inside a drug house.
Sarah told me about a time when she was doing drugs next to a toddler in a home during a police raid.
"It's like they hand the kid to the first non-felon that walks through the door," Sarah said. "CYFD comes and picks the child up, mom gets out of jail in three days and they go to a parenting class and kid goes back into that same situation. I was back at that house doing dope the next week and so was that kid."
The Hellums say for children in those situations, there are pitfalls at every corner.
For instance, New Mexico has some of the highest rates of addiction, combined with some of the lowest numbers of treatment centers.
They also say that sometimes the threat of losing custody of a child is enough to make a parent give up information on bigger drug suppliers and officers may use child abuse charges as leverage in building other cases.
The Hellums say another systemic problem is CYFD case workers are under tremendous amount of pressure to try and keep families together, and often children stay with parents in spite of dangerous lifestyles.
Sarah was one of those children. She grew up with her biological parents and was introduced to drugs at a very early age. By middle school she was using cocaine.
During our on-camera interview, I asked her if she thought she would have been better off being taken away from her parents. And while the lights were on and my camera was rolling... she paused and then told me that she loved her parents, and thought it better to grow up the way she did than to grow up in a different home.
A few days later I talked to Sarah again on the phone and she asked me, "Do you remember that question you asked about whether I would have been better off without my parents?"
I told her I did.
She said she was talking to a mentor of hers about that question and realized her response had gone against much of what she advocates.
I told her I noticed, but I didn't press the issue.
She didn't either.
I hung up the phone, unsure if I should include that part of our conversation in my story. It seemed so telling of how complex and difficult the issue can be to grasp.
I realize now that Sarah couldn't answer that question.
I remember hearing in her voice that she really didn't know.
Thinking back to the video of Perea's case, and what Perea looked like pushing her son's stroller, I find myself hopeful that she might also be able to turn things around.
I hope that she is able to find help and support, make the right choices and raise her children far away from addiction and crime.
A National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that most women who use drugs early in their pregnancy stop using later in their term. Experts also suggest that a pregnancy is the strongest time for a mother to sucessfully kick an addiction.
But Perea's intervention is just beginning. On Monday Perea admitted to smoking in the video but told police she has been clean ever since December.
Police say she also changed her story about expecting a child. Before she was arrested, Perea told detectives that she wasn't pregnant at the time the video was taken, but is pregnant now.
In New Mexico, child abuse and pregnancy pose another grey area. Under state statute, when it comes to child abuse, pregnancy doesn't really hold any legal significance.
A woman doing drugs while pregnant cannot be charged with child abuse even though her fetus is also getting high.
Advocates for women say that's because lawmakers fear stricter laws could keep drug addicted mothers from seeking out prenatal care.
One thing legislators did make very clear was the mandatory reporting of child abuse.
The law requires that New Mexicans intervene anytime someone suspects a child is in danger by reporting to the state.
If you suspect child abuse you can report it to CYFD by calling 1-855-333-SAFE or by dialing #SAFE (7233) from a cell phone.