This Foster Mom Treats Drug Babies With Love

Times Staff Writer

They are called drug babies--infants whose mothers abused drugs during pregnancy. Saddled with physical and behavioral problems, they can be difficult to care for. So few people, including their own parents, want them.

That's where Caroline Mraz steps in.

Mraz, 69, of South Pasadena, is "mom" to seven little girls, all of whom started out life shivering and shaking in their cribs from drug withdrawal. The girls range in age from 9 months to 10 years. One of them, Sasha Ann, 5, is Mraz's adopted daughter. Mraz, who is divorced, is the foster mother of three other girls and the legal guardian of three more.

When she decided to become a foster parent 10 years ago, Mraz asked to care for drug babies. She had first heard about such babies through her work as a volunteer helping inmates at Sybil Brand Institute for Women in Los Angeles and the California Institution for Women in Chino.

Some of the inmates told her they wanted to kick the drug habit but couldn't, Mraz said. Realizing she might not be able to help the mothers, Mraz resolved to help their children, especially the drug babies.

"I felt that these babies need love and security," Mraz said. "If children have these important factors, I feel the rest can be worked out."

On a recent weekday afternoon, Mraz's two-story house bustled with activity as her girls played with each other. Angelica Monge, a mother's helper who lives with the family during the week, was cooking and looking after the girls.

The two older children--Sasha Ann and Summer, 10--also helped by watching the two 9-month-old infants, Jeanetta and Judena.

When Judena joined the household, she was five months old, 11 pounds and "you could see all her ribs," Mraz said. Now Judena is a roly-poly 22 pounds.

'She Was Mean'

"I change their diapers," said Summer, who has lived with Mraz for almost six years. Asked what it was like living with her biological mother, Summer hesitated for a few seconds.

"I didn't like it there," Summer said. "She was mean at me."

Mraz said that when Summer, who had been physically abused by her mother, came to live with her, the little girl was speaking in her own made-up language. A slim girl with chestnut-colored hair, Summer now attends special education classes and said she loves living with Mraz.

"The secret is these children respond beautifully to love and care," Mraz said.

Many Errands

Mraz also spends countless hours shuttling her children to doctors' appointments and special education classes. Christina, 2, and Cherise, 3, have both suffered seizures and need regular medical monitoring.

Twice a week, Mraz also takes Cherise to classes designed to help her speech development. While still in the womb, Cherise had been exposed to so many illicit drugs that she did not begin to speak until a few months ago, and only after working with a therapist.

Even so, she communicates mainly through the word no ; by shaking or nodding her head, or by crying and throwing herself on the floor and screaming.

"A lot of her anger and frustration is because she couldn't talk," said Mraz, who looked pained as she watched Cherise thrashing on the floor.

"I love you," Mraz whispered to Cherise, and the child broke into a smile, clambered up and cradled her head in the curve of Mraz's arms.

158 Drug Babies Monthly

After Los Angeles County officials approved Mraz as a foster parent, the county Department of Children's Services was eager to honor her request for drug babies. Each month, 158 newborn drug babies are added to the department's list of children needing a home, said Barbara Uchida, head of the department's foster homes professional support section.

While waiting for a permanent foster home, the infants stay at MacLaren Children's Center in El Monte or at one of three private infant shelter group homes, Uchida said. They typically have to wait between 72 hours and four months to be placed in a long-term foster home, she said.

The county pays foster parents of drug babies a base rate of $555 a month per child; those of non-drug babies receive a base rate of $294 a month, Uchida said. Depending on a drug baby's medical complications, the rate could reach a maximum of $1,000 a month, Uchida said.

At $555 a month per child, Mraz figures she is making about 75 cents an hour to take care of each of the girls. She said she didn't ask for drug babies because of the extra money.

When she started as a foster parent in 1979 and asked for drug babies, she said, the county didn't pay extra for parents of drug babies. Besides, she said, the payments do not come close to covering her expenses, which include food, diapers and clothing as well as gasoline and other car expenses for taking the children to see doctors and other specialists.

Low Reimbursements

Most medical expenses are covered by the state MediCal program, Uchida said, but she added that the reimbursement rates are low and have been reduced in recent years.

"So foster parents have to put out money of their own," Uchida said. Mraz said she dips into her own savings to make up the difference.

Inadequate reimbursements and job burnout have prompted an average of 97 foster homes a month to drop out of the system, Uchida said. With an average of 84 new homes a month joining the foster care system, the total number of foster homes in the county has slowly decreased from a high of 4,090 in 1987 to 3,811 now, she said.

Before becoming a foster parent, Mraz ran a day-care center in her home but said the experience was not satisfying. The children would get emotionally attached to her, but she could never call them her own, she said.

"I felt I wasn't appreciated," said Mraz, who found it hard dealing with the parents. "They wouldn't pay me on time. They wouldn't show up when they were supposed to."

Mraz, who suffered several miscarriages, could not have children. A daughter she adopted almost 40 years ago now has her own family and lives in Huntington Beach.

Over the past 10 years, Mraz has opened her Palm Avenue home to more than 40 foster children. A bookshelf in the living room is lined with photographs of her former foster children, many of whom still call for a sympathetic ear or just to say hello.

Mraz started caring for adolescent foster children but discovered she couldn't handle them. "The damage had been done so much they didn't have the values I have," Mraz said of the older children.

With children whom she has cared for since their birth, Mraz said she is able to instill values, such as generosity and honesty. "You have no one to blame but yourself if they have bad manners," Mraz said.

Mraz wants to urge other senior citizens to consider becoming foster parents. She said caring for her seven girls has brought her love and happiness and helped her avoid the loneliness of old age.

The county does not have an age limit for people eligible to become foster parents, Uchida said.

But there are extra considerations as an older parent, Mraz said. When she adopted Sasha Ann, the judge told her, "You have to have a place for your daughter to go when God takes you." So in case anything happens to her, Mraz has arranged for Sasha Ann to live with a middle-aged couple who are her close friends.

Mraz said she loves being a foster parent.

"It keeps me young," she said. "It keeps me hopping."

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