Saving a Baby at a Time--It's a Start : Children: Millions are at risk, but there is hope in small-scale programs that rehabilitate mothers and make it stick.

Jonathan Freedman is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist based in San Diego. His book about innovative programs that help people, "Cradle to Grave: The Human Face of Poverty in America," will be published by Atheneum this fall.

Kenya, a black single mother, entered Options for Recovery, a San Diego County drug-treatment program, in August, 1990, while the National Commission on Children was conducting hearings at the height of the crack-baby epidemic.

Far from the commission's eye and six weeks pregnant, Kenya (who does not want her true name used) was dazed from coming off crack cocaine. Her first drug-exposed baby had died at birth. Early in her second pregnancy, she voluntarily entered treatment.

Kenya sat apart from two dozen other mothers in art therapy, creating a collage of blonde vamps cut out of fashion magazines that she sarcastically called "American Beauty." She mentioned that her first baby had died two hours after being born on a particular day in August. Her face froze with a sudden realization. This was the anniversary of her baby's death.

She laid her head on the table. Tears leaked through her clenched eyes and dripped onto the collage, staining the idealized faces of "American Beauty." She released a cold cry. The women turned from their collages. She screamed again, louder. The women seemed to cringe. The next scream seemed to rise from her womb. Kenya began to moan, rocking rhythmically as if in labor.

Kenya struggled through the next seven months of her pregnancy in suburban San Marcos, while the commission held hearings around the country, from urban ghettos to rural towns. Headed by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), the commission was searching for ways to contend with the drugs, violence and poverty engulfing America's children.

The odds against kids are staggering: 375,000 were born exposed to drugs in 1988, according to the Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families. Five million children under age 6 are now in dire poverty--one in three children in major cities. Eight in 10 black children will be paupers before they turn 18, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) estimates.

In the late summer and fall of 1990, the country was preoccupied with Operation Desert Storm, but within the sanctuary of Options, mothers with heroin tracks healing on their arms were building hope. Each day, Kenya and the other women gave each other drug tests and struggled through recovery.

In April, seven months after Kenya's outcry, she cooed joyously, "I have a clean baby boy!"

In Washington, the National Commission on Children was giving birth to a new agenda for children. It hammered out a bipartisan compromise between government activists and those who resisted government involvement. Even conservative advocates of "family values" finally agreed that the job was too big for families to do alone.

The commission issued its report, "Beyond Rhetoric," in June, 1991. It advocated universal prenatal care, a national child-support system and incentives to help parents make the transition from welfare to work.

The media ignored the complex agenda and fixated on the commission's proposed $1,000 refundable tax credit for every child, which would cost $40 billion. Congress deep-sixed the children's agenda.

At the nadir, from the White House to the crack houses of America, the cries of children were ignored. Yet in programs like Options, committed counselors and clients were listening, fighting helplessness and making progress, one clean baby at a time.

The cost of Options' treatment is $60 a day, compared to $2,000 a day for a crack baby in neonatal intensive care. One baby's $250,000 hospitalization would pay for treatment for all of the women who enrolled in Options over two years--almost 60 mothers. Not a single Options baby tested positive for drugs.

This spring, Kenya's son is celebrating his second birthday. Still clean, Kenya has completed two years of college in computer science. She wants to work but fears losing Medicaid for her son. She would benefit from a $1,000 tax credit and guaranteed health benefits.

In Washington, the National Commission on Children has brought together 700 leaders to demonstrate effective programs. One former member, Bill Clinton, is now in the White House. The commission's four-point program deserves the President's--and the American people's--attention:

The best way to help a child is to help that child's family.

All children have the same basic needs for love, security, shelter and the guidance to become self-disciplined.

It's less costly to prevent problems than to pay for consequences; invest in healthy development.

ndividuals, families, communities and government all share responsibility for America's children.

The children's agenda is as urgent as a crack mother's cry, as miraculous as the birth of a clean baby.

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