The Guardian

The town is called Paradise, but what Sue Webber-Brown is looking at is best called hell: a rampaging pit bull, rotten food, piles of porn, drug paraphernalia, four adults—and four children—cowering in silence. The other task-force cops who’ve just battered down the door of this Northern California home drug lab—where methamphetamine, a potent form of speed, is allegedly being made—begin cuffing the suspects. Holstering her gun, Webber-Brown heads for the children. “It’s all about saving the kids,” she says, leading them past heaps of cash and a pile of dog waste. “They’re the true victims.”

Children have long been collateral damage in the war on drugs, treated almost as an afterthought by law-enforcement officers focused on busting labs and bagging big-time dealers with little regard for the fractured families they leave behind. But since 1993, when Webber-Brown, now 46, began developing drug-policing techniques that put emphasis on the plight of kids, task-force teams in Butte County, Calif., have been reaping unexpected results. “We nab the parents for dealing,” says Webber-Brown, a mother of three, “but the real victory is breaking the cycle and getting kids, who will most likely follow their parents into a life of drugs, away from the awful effects of living in a meth-lab home.”

Awful is an understatement. Toxic residue left over from the drug-production process literally floats through the air of meth houses, permeating clothes and furniture and frequently ending up in occupants’ bloodstreams. There, especially in developing children, it can damage the central nervous system, impairing memory and concentration, says Edythe London, a University of California at Los Angeles psychiatrist who studies the drug’s effect on the brain. Now children found during Butte County drug raids are routinely taken to a hospital by officers trained in handling young victims for court-ordered evaluation.

Then there is the emotional fallout of the meth epidemic. So common are sexual abuse and violence in homes devastated by the drug, says Webber-Brown, that 80 percent of the children rescued so far have been placed in foster homes or with other relatives to protect them from their own parents—who are often charged with child abuse in addition to their other crimes.

But since Webber-Brown and a former colleague founded Butte County’s Drug Endangered Children’s program almost a decade ago, some 900 meth kids have at least been given an opportunity for a fresh start. “She was able to see the special needs of children caught in the web of meth horror,” says Birkmeyer, a federal prosecutor from San Diego who has worked with Webber-Brown since the mid-’90s. “She’s a great cop and a great mother.” Admirers of the child-first enforcement techniques she pioneered are currently developing similar programs in at least two dozen California jurisdictions and in 15 other states.

Married to Mitch Brown, the police chief of Oroville, Calif, (where the couple live with their 11-year-old son Mathew), Webber-Brown has spent almost all of her life in the small rural community north of Sacramento. A jock in high school, she was interested in law enforcement—”I like investigating,” she says—and enrolled in a police training course in Sacramento. She worked as an investigator for the county D.A. before joining an interagency drug task force in 1991. By then, meth was establishing a foothold in the region. According to Brown, 53, cops typically regarded kids they encountered on busts as a distraction. “Having to deal with them slowed us down,” he says. To his wife, however, the deplorable conditions kids were being made to live in seemed like a crime itself. In extreme cases, zoned-out parents were feeding their babies meth to keep them quiet. “I was asking, ‘Why aren’t the parents going to jail for endangering their kids?’ ” says Webber-Brown (who has two older children—Scott, 19, a volunteer fireman, and Heidi, 21, a college student). With help from her husband and Lisa Fey-Williams, 38, then a caseworker for Child Protective Services, she began lobbying her superiors to target meth operations that put kids at risk, and two years later the Drug Endangered Children’s program was born.

Back at the scene of her most recent bust, Webber-Brown, who unwinds one night a week by bowling in a league with her husband, appears the picture of calm as she soothes the traumatized kids—and draws out information that may prove useful to prosecutors. “We all have different dads,” says one little boy about his siblings; he will go on to admit his mom smokes from a glass pipe and pulls his hair when she gets angry. Later, reflecting on her work, Webber-Brown says, “We have to fight this scourge. Saving kids is where the battle line is drawn.”

Patrick Rogers

Ron Arias in Paradise

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