Women of Foley House on Mission to Lift Alcohol's Curse on Infants

Times Staff Writer

Weighing only 12 pounds, Aaron is tiny for his 6 months. He has a clubfoot, a heart murmur and is asthmatic.

And his mother, Karen Jones, a recovering alcoholic, is not certain how much of her smile the infant can see: Doctors have told her that Aaron has severe eye problems.

In spite of the baby's medical situation, Jones is happy that her son--whom she said doctors have diagnosed as having fetal alcohol syndrome--is alive.

"I never had prenatal care. I was loaded every day of my pregnancy on alcohol or drugs. I was loaded the day he was born," said Jones, 32, who has spent nearly four months at Foley House, a recovery facility for alcoholics in unincorporated county area of Whittier.

During a typical six-month period, Foley House treats about 20 women and 10 children. Of the children at the house now, Aaron is the only one who exhibits the fetal alcohol syndrome. Because of this, Foley House has joined a statewide effort to educate its residents and others about the dangers of drinking while pregnant.

Message Is Don't Drink

"The message has got to get out that you should not drink or do drugs while you are pregnant," said Jones, who finds herself, along with another recovering alcoholic, Becky Adams, in the unusual role of crusading for a cause.

Adams believes that her 7-year-old daughter shows signs of fetal alcohol effects, or FAE, whose symptoms are more subtle than fetal alcohol syndrome and may go undiagnosed.

According to statistics, fetal alcohol syndrome occurs in 1 of 600 births and can result in low birth weight, physical deformities and mental retardation, said Theda New Breast, who is considered an expert in the field of alcoholism.

"What mom drinks can go to the bloodstream of the developing fetus and this is a critical time. The baby can be deformed," said New Breast.

Studies have also shown that 1 out of 300 babies are affected by fetal alcohol effects, which can result in low IQs, hyperactivity and low attention span, said New Breast, who is the coordinator of a number of alcoholism programs in the state.

Foley House, which is run by the Southeast Council on Alcoholism & Drug Problems Inc.--a nonprofit organization headquartered in Downey--opened 17 months ago. It operates on a $237,000 annual federal grant.

At the time, it was the first alcoholism recovery home in the county to allow children to live with their mothers while the women are undergoing treatment. Today, there are two others, including one in Long Beach called Patterns.

Since opening, Foley House has taken in 136 women with 54 children. Between 75% and 80% of the 136 women have completed the six-month program, said Susan Lathers, director. Some of the dropouts simply walk away; others who are found drinking or taking drugs are dismissed immediately.

The alcoholic women are admitted while still intoxicated, allowed to sober up, then spend their days listening to lectures on the dangers of alcohol by ex-alcoholics and health experts, viewing educational films, talking with counselors and other alcoholics and expressing their pent-up emotions. In between, there is a daily routine of cooking, making beds and taking care of the children.

If she had not decided to come to Foley House to recover, Jones, who was born in Framingham, Mass., said she would "be living on the streets, living on the concrete in downtown L. A. and loaded."

She believes that her story should be told. It should be a warning to other pregnant women, Jones said.

"I was stupid. I didn't know I wasn't supposed to drink," said Jones, who came to Los Angeles in early 1986 with her boyfriend.

Jones said that during her drunken odyssey on the streets, where she was raped after getting pregnant, she became separated from the father. "He doesn't know he has a baby," she said.

Jones said she became an expert panhandler to support her drug and alcohol habits.

Panhandled in Affluent Areas

"I would go to the shopping malls in Palos Verdes . . . and panhandle. I would make as much as $40 a day. People would feel sorry for me because I was pregnant.

"I would take food stamps and the money from welfare to spend on cheap wine, coke and marijuana," she said.

In her last month of pregnancy, two good Samaritans in San Pedro took her in and took care of her until the baby's birth.

No less compelling is Adams' story.

"I started drinking when I was 6," said Adams, 37, of Daytona Beach, Fla. "My mother was an alcoholic. When I was 14, I tried to kill myself by taking a bottle of my mother's heart pills and drinking a bottle of Scotch.

"My husband was an alcoholic. When my son was 8 months old, I ended up in a home for battered women in Orange County.

"It was insane," said Adams, who has two children, a 16-month-old boy and a 7-year-old girl living with her at Foley. They have been there nearly six months. Adams believes that her daughter shows signs of fetal alcohol effects.

"She was born premature. She was very small. She is intelligent but has lots of behavioral problems in school," said Adams. Those problems also might be related to having been raised by parents who were drunk all the time, Adams said. Her toddler son does not exhibit any effects of fetal alcoholism damage.

Although Foley House is a refuge for women alcoholics, the people who run it say it serves as a research facility as well. By working with the residents who have young children, the staff tries to learn as much as possible about treating FAS symptoms, said Sami Scott, a counselor at Foley.

"This is a very touchy subject and mothers have a lot of guilt," said Scott.

"This is also a fairly new subject. Research didn't really began on it until 1973, but we know that it is 100% preventable if the mother doesn't drink," said Peggy Barnett, director of the American Indian Eagle Lodge in Long Beach. The Eagle Lodge is a home for both men and women alcoholics.

"We are in the process of preparing manuals that will focus on FAS and its prevention," said New Breast, who is also involved in a statewide effort to get legislation to require health-warning labels on alcoholic beverage containers. New Breast said their efforts have failed so far because of successful opposition from the liquor industry lobby.

Only Long Beach, San Diego and the city and county of Los Angeles have ordinances that require restaurants, bars and liquor stores to post signs warning of the hazards of alcohol to pregnant women, New Breast said.

"We really should be putting warning labels on alcohol the same as we do for cigarettes," said New Breast. She and others with similar beliefs are "on a mission, a pilgrimage, to see that it happens."

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