A Vicious Circle : Now 42, Linda Navarro Inherited a Drug Habit and Life of Pain From Heroin-Addicted Parents

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As drug busts go, this wasn't so dramatic.

Linda Navarro was crossing the parking lot of the juvenile courthouse where she worked as a public defender. She was wearing a new, camel-colored cashmere suit, and her arms were full of legal files.

A man she knew approached her and said, "Hey, Linda, I have to talk to you." Coming closer, he flipped out his badge and said, "You're under arrest for violation of the controlled substances act."

No loudspeakers, flashing lights or TV cameras.

As the story behind Navarro's arrest unfolded, however, a drama did surface--a lifelong drama explaining why a respected attorney would risk everything by succumbing to heroin addiction.

In fact, Navarro had been hurtling toward this fate ever since she was an infant in a Harlem apartment, twitching and shrieking in the throes of heroin withdrawal. She was born a drug baby, heir to a family legacy of heroin use.

Her arrest and subsequent exposure brought Navarro, 42, relief from a life of hiding. "I was always struggling with this thing alone," she says. "I hated it so much. It was just so big and so horrible. I was afraid if anybody found out, I would lose everything I'd worked for."

But she has little in common with the high-profile drug babies of today, other than her exposure to drugs in the womb. When Navarro was born, there were no drug-baby specialists to treat her, no magazine cover stories eliciting public sympathy for the "innocent victims" of the drug epidemic.

With researchers and the media now devoting considerable attention to the plight of the estimated 370,000 "crack babies" born annually, Navarro's story raises the disturbing specter of an entirely forgotten generation of children dependent on drugs from birth.

Some authorities say such children are born physiologically dependent on their parents' drug of choice; others argue the children's predisposition to addiction may be genetic or purely environmental. In any case, it's fair to say that a child like Navarro, born into a family of drug abuse, "never had a chance," says Dr. Xylina Bean, associate director of neonatology at Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital/Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Many infants were probably exposed to heroin in the womb during the heroin vogue of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Bean says--the same craze that snared Navarro's parents, famed jazz trumpeter Theodore (Fats) Navarro and his wife, Rena, a beautiful rebel from a middle-class Seattle family. Fats Navarro died of a heroin overdose at age 26 the year after Linda was born.

Heroin use "was a big East Coast phenomenon at that time," Bean says, estimating that at the height of the heroin craze, as many as 15% of women in large East Coast cities may have experimented with the drug. No one knows how exposure to heroin before birth would affect someone like Navarro 42 years later. Few long-range studies have been conducted on children dependent on drugs from birth, and none have looked at men and women of Navarro's age who may have been hooked for a lifetime, says Dr. Geraldine Wilson, associate professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Wilson has studied of heroin-addicted mothers and their children.

Although Linda Navarro's story may be one of the first to spotlight this neglected population, in some ways she is not representative. Drug experts say that longtime heroin addicts often die of infectious diseases or cardiac problems, or end up in prison or on the streets.

Navarro, on the other hand, managed to raise a son on her own and to earn two degrees from the University of Washington while maintaining a heroin habit. She passed the state bar examination in 1981 and went to work as a public defender, earning a reputation for her visceral dedication to the disadvantaged.

She was earning $4,000 a month at the time of her arrest in February, 1987. Her license to practice law was suspended. She was reinstated briefly, but after a drug relapse last summer, she was forced to resign from the bar and now cannot afford a car or health insurance. She struggles to support herself and her 15-year-old son, Amilcar, on the income she earns by preparing legal briefs for $5 an hour.

"The fact that she is alive is a miracle," says Dr. Janice Keller Phelps, a now-retired specialist in addictions who treated Navarro. "She is a miracle."

After work one recent afternoon, Navarro frantically raced to the gas company to pay an overdue utility bill. "I'm always chasing shut-off notices," she says.

After paying the bill, Navarro arrived home to find three teen-agers--her son and two friends--slouched in front of the television set.

After mixing frozen orange juice in the kitchen, where a tofu concoction was coagulating in a frying pan, Navarro retreated upstairs to her bedroom. The downstairs has been ceded to Amilcar and any of his friends currently in residence, she explains. Given her own rootless upbringing, Navarro cannot help but take in kids who need a place to stay.

Navarro's room was smoky--she smokes constantly--and cozy, with clothes and books scattered around and a pregnant cat curled up in a chair. It's a nest, a safe haven.

Now enrolled in a methadone program and taking Prozac for depression, Navarro still feels out of kilter much of the time.

"I wake up in the morning with a feeling of dread in my stomach. Everything's wrong. I don't know what it is," she says. "No anti-depressants, no anti-anxiety medication--none of it is as effective as opiates."

One of her earliest memories is of waking up in a crib in a motel room crying and hearing a strange man say: "You shut that kid up." At the time, Navarro realized later, her mother was working as a prostitute to support her habit. On another occasion, she remembers being locked in a hotel bathroom for hours while her mother slept off the effects of drugs.

In contrast to the current trend, Navarro has little patience with those who would prosecute or persecute parents who expose their unborn children to drugs. Rather than blame, she has tried to understand her parents' lives, seeking out jazz musicians who might have known the couple in New York.

Miles Davis wrote in his 1989 autobiography: "Fats Navarro was a real bad junkie, pitiful," adding that Fats' wife "worried about him all the time. She was white. They had a little girl named Linda. . . ."

Linda's mother, who died of cirrhosis in 1974, was a 6-foot-tall blonde from an upstanding Swedish family. "She was really smart, and it made her suffer," Navarro says. "She resented her family because they sent her brother to college and told her to get married. So she took her beauty and her brains, and she set about showing them."

Showing them meant running away to New York City to become a groupie to the emerging bohemian jazz scene. There Rena Clark met and married Fats Navarro, an enormous man of African-Cuban ancestry.

Often mentioned in the same lineup with Dizzy Gillepsie and Miles Davis, Navarro was "an exceptionally gifted trumpet player and one of the great players in the be-bop tradition," says Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz studies at Rutgers University.

Fats Navarro probably made the mistake many other musicians made of too completely emulating their hero, Charlie (Bird) Parker, Morgenstern says.

Parker was a heroin addict, and "there were a lot of people who thought, 'If I get high, I'll be able to play like Bird,' " says Morgenstern.

Rena Navarro probably realized something was wrong when her new baby wouldn't eat or sleep. Linda spent her first days fidgeting, vomiting and crying in a high-pitched wail. She was suffering from a syndrome known as "grasshopper baby," common to infants in heroin withdrawal.

In the absence of advice from agencies and specialists, Rena Navarro treated Linda's withdrawal symptoms with paregoric, a tincture of opium.

After her husband's death, Rena Navarro tried to take care of her habit and her little girl at the same time, but the pursuits proved incompatible. When Linda was 5, her mother left her with her grandparents in Seattle.

Linda's grandparents, thinking they were abetting Rena's habit by caring for her daughter, soon relinquished the child to the care of the Department of Social and Health Services. She went to live at the Youth Services Center--the same facility where, years later, she would work as an attorney representing juveniles like herself.

For the remainder of Navarro's youth, she had little contact with her grandparents, who have since died. Those years were largely spent in transition between foster placements, with occasional periods of living with her mother, whose habit had grown "outrageous and depressing."

"She would board me in places and never come back, or she'd get arrested and they'd carry me off and I'd see her when she got out of prison," Navarro recalls.

One of Navarro's first clues that she may have inherited an addiction came when she was 8 years old. She asked her mother why she was not growing as tall as her mother or her mother's relatives--all 6-footers.

"She sat me down and told me that she assumed the reason I didn't grow was because I was addicted from birth, that I didn't eat . . . for months. I just didn't gain weight and I couldn't tolerate food," Navarro said at a disciplinary hearing of the Washington State Bar Assn.

The inherited destiny further unfolded for Linda at age 12. She began dosing herself with marijuana and pills, graduating to heroin when she was a student at Garfield High School, her mother's alma mater. Often adult users would give her drugs for free. She took the drugs in attempt to self-medicate the intolerable symptoms of a nervous system unbalanced from birth, according to addiction specialists who spoke at Navarro's hearing before the bar.

When she was drug-free, Navarro says now, she was tortured by "heart-pounding, sweat-popping anxiety, overwhelming depression and pain everywhere--like being stung by a thousand bees or having acid thrown in your face."

When she injected heroin, she felt normal, "functional."

Navarro describes herself at the time as a conservative child who wore pleated plaid skirts and button-up collars and steeped herself in books. "All I did was read. I lived in another universe," she says. "I read novels, gardening books, love stories, Nancy Drew. . . ."

To Navarro, injecting drugs didn't seem at all inconsistent with her quiet, intellectual nature. Given her upbringing, "I thought drug use was normal," she says. "I didn't see anything unusual about it at all. I thought that's what people did."

Having grown up as a ward of the court, with lawyers and judges for surrogate parents, it also seemed natural to Navarro to become an attorney. She was living on $317 a month in welfare and had a new baby when she began law school. (Navarro says she refrained from using drugs while pregnant, yet she still worries that Amilcar will inherit the family disposition to addiction.)

Although she worked part time while a student at the University of Washington Law School, "Linda was very poor among wealthier classmates who were the sons and daughters of doctors, judges and professionals," attorney Patrick Hayden recalled in a letter to the bar.

After finishing school and passing the bar exam, Navarro went to work in the King County District Courts and Seattle Municipal Courts, handling a caseload of about 100 clients, many of them from backgrounds of poverty, neglect and drug abuse like her own.

Later, when she was rotated to juvenile court, she says, "it was hard for me because that is where I spent so much time as a child. The smells, everything, were exactly the same."

Sometimes Navarro would leave the office, still dressed in her cashmere suit and carrying a briefcase, and drive to the parts of town where she knew she could get heroin. All her life she had known where to get it, she says; she grew up with people who used and sold the drug.

The closest she came to being caught, she says, was a couple of times when a police car flashed its brights at her in a warning to keep the drug traffic down.

After her arrest, shocked colleagues would comment on the perilous double life she was leading--downtown attorney by day, back-street junkie by night. But to Navarro, the back streets were familiar. Going home to a pristine suburb at the end of the day would have felt like a double life, she contends.

She did try to get help by enrolling in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous programs, but she says she was always afraid she would run into one of her clients and be discovered. At the time of her arrest, she had just completed a treatment program.

Ironically, Navarro's professional success was what led to her downfall. "It was the salary that killed me; I had no limits any more," she notes.

As she began to make more money, she succumbed more often to what had previously been an occasional reward. She had a history, her doctor testified, of "short-term rounds" with heroin, meaning she would use the drug periodically, substituting alcohol and other drugs at other times to keep herself on an even keel.

When she was able to afford heroin, she regarded it "like food, a pleasure," she says. "It had always been an extra-special treat--like going to Hawaii for some people."

Ultimately, a friend set her up. He said he was grieving over his mother's death and asked Navarro to get him some heroin to help ease the pain. He gave her $150 and she bought 10 pea-sized bags of heroin with it, keeping three for herself as part of the agreement. This transaction and two more like it were witnessed by an undercover King County detective.

Navarro pleaded guilty to three counts of distributing heroin--a different charge, she points out, from selling heroin. "I wasn't doing it for profit," she says. "I've never hurt anybody. I was just addicted."

Although the deputy prosecutor recommended a sentence of two years and seven months in prison, Navarro was ultimately granted a first-offender waiver. She was sentenced to probation, community service and a year of residential treatment for substance abuse.

Contributing to the light sentence was an unprecedented outpouring of support from the legal community. Six judges and a former judge wrote letters attesting to Navarro's professionalism and good character. Dozens of attorneys who had worked with her over the years also submitted letters.

Remarking on Navarro's "zeal for justice," Patrick McIntyre, deputy director of Evergreen Legal Services, wrote, "Perhaps in part because of her personal situation and background, Linda demonstrated a deeper, more mature desire to serve the disadvantaged in our society than any other person with whom I have been associated."

While Navarro completed her nine-month residential treatment program, her son went to live with Judge Norma Smith Huggins.

Three years after the arrest, Navarro remained drug-free and her license to practice law was reinstated.

But, then, a year ago, Navarro relapsed. She says she ran into a friend who was so happy to see her back at work, he gave her "a big ball of dope." Exhausted from overwork, she says, 'I didn't have any reserves that would let me say no. The minute it was in my hand, it was over."

Navarro turned herself in. Facing almost certain disbarment, she resigned the law license she had earned despite such enormous odds against her.

To practice law again, Navarro would have to retake the bar exam and convince the bar's character and fitness committee that she is worthy of reinstatement.

"The burden would be on her to demonstrate she should be permitted to practice," says Leland Ripley, staff attorney for the state bar association. "At this point, the issue she would have to resolve to their satisfaction is: Has she overcome her problem, and is she going to remain drug-free?"

Many of Navarro's supporters, aggrieved that the judicial system is being deprived of an attorney with her skills and life experience, are afraid the bar will never give Linda her license back because of the stigma associated with heroin.

The societal attitude toward heroin is "you've got to be sick and dirty to use it," agrees Santiago Juarez, a criminal defense attorney who employs Navarro part time.

"We make exceptions for all sorts of people and let them have licenses to practice," he says. "There are lawyers out there with depression; there are silk-collar cocaine users with downtown law firms. Thousands of lawyers are on lithium. I think that's the drug of choice for yuppie lawyers." (A bar association spokesman estimates that one-third of all practicing attorneys in Washington are impaired by alcohol, drugs or clinical depression.)

If Navarro tries to get her license back, he concludes, "They're going to tell her: 'You're a black woman and a junkie, and heroin is not our drug of choice.' "

Leland Ripley, attorney for the bar, disagrees. Given the facts of Navarro's birth, he says, the bar could come to another conclusion: "It's not her drug of choice, but her mother's. She (Linda) never had a choice."

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