For these newborns, the first embrace of life includes the tight grip of the recent past.
Many are extremely jittery. Most have difficulty eating and sleeping.
Some, overcome by listlessness, don’t cry at all. The only sound others make is an occasional eerie, high-pitched shriek.
These are babies who were exposed to drugs while in their mothers’ wombs. They are the youngest victims of America’s drug epidemic.
When they leave the hospital after birth, experts say, chances are they will spend their early childhood in shelters or foster homes, and will soon show substantial mental and physical abnormalities.
On Monday, five of these infants found themselves in a new home with starring roles in an ambitious, experimental project designed to free them and other newborns from the trap of their mothers’ drug-dependent pasts.
Two generations--mother and child--will be treated in a unique group setting at Children’s Institute International in Los Angeles.
The youngsters will be provided specialized 24-hour care, while their mothers will undergo counseling, all in an attempt ultimately to reunite them.
10% of Newborns
Local experts say the project could point the way toward rebuilding a stable family environment for drug-exposed newborns, believed to represent more than one in 10 of all U.S. births, according to a recent study.
“We could fill up those five beds in three seconds,” said Kathleen West, who is involved in programs for drug-involved families affiliated with the neonatal nursery at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, which each month has an average of 45 infants born to drug-involved mothers.
Throughout Los Angeles County, such births increased 68% in 1986, according to the Department of Children’s Services. Last February, 241 addicted or drug-exposed infants were born, the highest monthly total ever.
Nationwide, 375,000 newborns a year were threatened with the effects of in-utero drug exposure, according to a pioneering study by Dr. Ira Chasnoff of Northwestern University in Chicago.
“Currently, 11% are exposed to drugs . . . (but) probably the majority of cases are being missed,” Chasnoff said. “It is a major problem and we’re going to have to develop methods for intervention during pregnancy and after.”
The growth in the number of drug-exposed infants is not limited to, or concentrated in, urban areas or among the poor, according to Pat O’Keefe of the National Assn. for Perinatal Addiction Research and Education, which helped sponsor Chasnoff’s research.
All Socioeconomic Groups
“The incidence (of newborn drug exposure) is spread across all socioeconomic groups,” O’Keefe said. “It doesn’t depend on location or, for instance, whether the mother is receiving public aid.”
At the Children’s Institute, 711 S. New Hampshire Ave., the federally funded program is aimed at protecting the parent-child bond, according to Dr. Stephen A. Ambrose, who heads the new program.
The infants will live at the institute, receiving constant attention from doctors and therapists. Their mothers will be counseled and allowed to visit their children.
Currently, many such infants are sent to shelter homes, or group homes housing dozens or hundreds of children, where they do not receive the specialized care they often need.
Others are placed in foster homes, although few foster parents are skilled enough or willing to handle such fragile babies, or are returned to the mother or relatives, according to experts in the field and a county children’s service spokesman.
But experts say the problem is so explosive and so new that none of the traditional responses appear adequate.
“We are running out of options on a national basis,” Ambrose said.
The infant care unit of the Institute’s New Beginnings program is one possibility. It is a three-year program funded by a $330,000 grant from the National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect in Washington.
The infants, expected to total 40 a year with an average stay of about six weeks, will receive specialized medical and psychological treatment. The intensive care and monitoring of the infants may also help close the huge gap in medical knowledge on the long-term fate of drug-exposed babies.
Ambrose, Chasnoff and a spokesman for the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect said little is known about long-term effects of in-utero exposure to drugs.
“We believe there’s definitely a toll that’s been taken on the central nervous system due to drug exposure,” West said. “At 5 years of age, some show speech, sight and motor coordination problems. Some show poor play behavior. They don’t know how to interact with toys in ways that are learning.”
The other half of the program, rehabilitating mothers, fits in with the institute’s ongoing care program for older children, involving residential care, counseling and therapy for family members, and training of foster parents.
More than 40 youngsters live at the institute at any one time, many of them abused, a majority from environments involving drugs.
The new infant care program will be the first time the institute will house newborns.
Cynthia Forrest, 28, who is now undergoing counseling at the institute, said she has been clean of drugs for six weeks.
Her 4-month-old son, Calvin, born after the mother’s longstanding dependence on cocaine, and a year-old son, Brandon, have been placed in shelter care homes while Forrest fights her addiction.
“They understand what I’m going through,” Forrest said of the institute’s staff. “They’re not here to hurt my child. They’re not here to hurt me. And they’re not trying to separate us.”
Goal of Reunification
“We’re very much in favor of family reunification, when that can be done safely,” Ambrose said. Working toward that goal often turns out to be “the least traumatic outcome,” he added.
“Addicted parents are unique,” West agreed. “They are a difficult population to work with. They are not at all unconcerned about their children. They are just addicted.”
Trying to kick a drug habit and learn a parent’s skills (part of the institute’s counseling program) at the same time can be difficult, Ambrose acknowledged.
“I see a number of minor miracles here,” he added. “That gives me hope. Sometimes, babies can provide the impetus.”