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The Littlest Victims : Couple Takes in Babies Damaged by Drugs Before They Were Born

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Two-year-old Nicholas laughs and smiles as his foster parents, Kay and Jack Corrodi, pull him in a wagon around their Malibu home.

But no one knows when his mood will darken, when he will start throwing toys at the sky or banging his head against the wall.

At such times, Kay Corrodi says, “he’s just really violent. He’ll bite you really hard. He’ll bite his own chin.”

His foster parents say the toddler’s problems started before he was born, when his mother used PCP and cocaine during her pregnancy. The Corrodis--and doctors they have consulted--blame his impulsive behavior on the drugs he was exposed to while in the womb.

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Nicholas (the boy’s name has been changed to protect his privacy) is among a growing number of drug-damaged children. Though scenes of babies tossing and turning in the throes of drug withdrawal have become a familiar sight in inner-city hospitals, the long-term damage--both physical and mental--is just coming to light.

Sought Help

In trying to understand Nicholas and six other drug-damaged children they have cared for over the years, the Corrodis sought help from the UCLA Family Assistance Project, which has been researching the long-term effects of drugs on babies.

“I kept going back to UCLA and describing his behavior,” Kay Corrodi said. “I asked whether he could be schizophrenic or autistic. They (the doctors) said, you know we’d like to label them, you know we’d love to know what is wrong with him, but we don’t know yet.”

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Caring for drug-exposed children is not a challenge the Corrodis sought, though they now embrace it with what a UCLA pediatrician described as a “pioneering spirit.” Jack, 53, and Kay, 57, both real estate agents, now serve as foster parents to Nicholas and two other drug-exposed babies.

The struggle to find help for their first foster child brought the Corrodis to their current involvement with drug-exposed children. When the Corrodis took in the newborn girl almost five years ago, they didn’t know she had been exposed to drugs. But they immediately suspected that something was amiss.

The baby was tiny, weighing only 3 pounds, and was unresponsive. And after a few weeks, the Corrodis realized the baby couldn’t see.

Asking Questions

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Alarmed by the discovery, the couple began asking questions of the county Department of Children’s Services and the UCLA program. They discovered the girl was the offspring of a cocaine-using mother. “That was our introduction into the world of damaged babies, and it’s really been an eye-opener for us,” recalled Kay Corrodi.

“I was so overwhelmed with the thought that these mothers were damaging these children like that I wanted to go up and down the street and tell people what had happened to this child that was so damaged,” she said. “I was just trying to get all the information that I could about it. (The crisis) was just surfacing. I contacted every resource I could find, and I was asking so many questions of everybody.

“They told me, ‘We aren’t the ones taking care of these children. We don’t really know all the day-to-day problems, you do.’ ”

Dr. Judy Howard, director of the UCLA Family Assistance Project, credited the Corrodis with a willingness to aggressively probe the health-care system for answers. “What’s so wonderful about the Corrodis is . . . they were secure enough to say, this is not a normal baby. They asked us for more services,” Howard said.

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Model Program

Those requests led the UCLA Family Assistance Project to develop a model for providing support services and child-care training to people caring for drug-exposed children, said Vickie Kropenske, a public health nurse for the UCLA Family Assistance Project. “It started with Kay and Jack. We had a social worker and a public health nurse working with them,” Kropenske said.

Using this experience as a model, the UCLA program began training pairs of county social workers and public health nurses to make visits to the homes of drug-exposed children as part of a federally funded experiment. At the homes, the teams examine the children and teach the care-givers how to take care of them.

The Corrodis, who have seven adopted children ranging in age from 6 to 16 years old, got interested in the foster-care system when their attempts to adopt an eighth child failed because the birth mother changed her mind.

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The couple decided they couldn’t face the heartbreak of another failed adoption. “We thought we could enjoy the children without financial responsibility (the county pays for foster care) and without the emotional responsibility, though we became awfully attached to them,” Kay Corrodi said.

Short-Term Care

The first foster child stayed with them for about 2 1/2 years. The others stays were short term, a couple of weeks to a month. The three children they have now have been with them about a year. Eventually, the children are returned to their parents or are adopted.

“The whole idea is to reunite them with their parents,” Kay Corrodi said.

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For the Corrodis, the path hasn’t been easy. Over the years, they have experienced a bankruptcy during which they lost their beachfront home, had a house that they were building and planning to sell burn down, and they suffered fire or flood damage at other properties they own. They and their large brood now live in a double trailer that is connected to a small guest house located on a bluff overlooking the ocean where they plan to build an 11-bedroom house.

Their fortunes have rebounded with the real estate market, so Kay Corrodi has been able to virtually retire to take care of the children. Jack Corrodi works from home most of the time, so he is able to help out more with the children. A married couple works for them, living in their home and helping them care for the large household.

When they aren’t busy with the children, the Corrodis help Los Angeles County recruit foster parents and have spoken to groups about the problems of babies whose mothers used drugs. Kay Corrodi also serves on a foster parents’ advisory board to the UCLA Family Assistance Project.

Burgeoning Crisis

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When they first turned to UCLA, the Corrodis were seeking guidance from medical and social workers who were largely at a loss at how to deal with the burgeoning crisis. Because of the increased use of illegal drugs by women, the number of drug-exposed newborns reported to the county has risen from 132 in 1981 to 1,619 in 1987, according to Ray LaMotte, spokesman for the Department of Children’s Services.

Those figures may be very low-- perhaps reflecting only one-third of the number of children involved--because not all babies are tested for drugs, and some hospitals are lax about reporting figures to the county, Kropenske said. The tally is further decreased by the fact that infants’ urine samples only test positive for drugs if their mothers have taken drugs within 72 hours of delivery, she added.

Although the damage caused to children by mothers using heroin has been seen for years, the medical profession is just starting to understand the consequences resulting from the use of the kinds of drugs now prevalent, Howard said.

“The drugs of the ‘80s are much different than the drugs of the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Howard said. “You didn’t have crack, you didn’t have tar heroin, designer drugs and these combinations.”

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Children born to drug users can be roughly divided into two groups, Howard said. Many of them are born prematurely and may suffer breathing problems, brain hemorrhages and visual handicaps, she said. Others survive birth physically intact, but may be poor feeders, lack muscle tone or otherwise lag behind normal children in development, she said.

Behavior Extremes

Behavior of these children tends toward two extremes, Howard said. “Some are very irritable. They cry whenever you set them down. Some of the babies are very lethargic. . . . They just sleep and stare.”

The Corrodis’ first foster child, who has since been adopted by another family, fell into the latter category. Though she has gained partial vision, the little girl is unable to crawl, sit up or speak after 4 1/2 years of life.

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To help parents deal with the special needs of drug-exposed children, the foster parents’ advisory group at UCLA is designing a pamphlet to accompany the children as they proceed through the foster care system, perhaps going from one foster home to another, Kay Corrodi said. The pamphlet will provide the information necessary to assure some continuity in their care. It will contain photographs of the child, a medical history and a list of community resources, including many that Kay found for her first foster child.

For the foster parents, the advisory group helps spread information about the physical and behavioral problems these children face. Some frustrated foster parents have given up and returned their drug-exposed babies to the county, convinced that the children weren’t responding to their care, Howard said.

The Corrodis, active Roman Catholics, said they find support in church activities. “We believe we’re getting a lot of help from above,” Jack Corrodi said.

They are tested severely sometimes. One evening last summer, their 22-month-old foster baby, stopped breathing. The child of a cocaine user, the boy had undergone a series of surgeries after suffering a brain hemorrhage when he was 2 days old. Paramedics were able to revive him and take him to the hospital, where he recovered.

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The next morning, Kay Corrodi sat down and wrote a prayer. “Lord, bless this helpless infant. And keep him in your heart. Protect him from more harm. For he has suffered from the start.”


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