Several weeks ago, an eager, childless couple knocked on the front door of a rambling frame house on Balboa Peninsula. They were admitted by a blond, matronly woman trailed by a tiny, piquant, curly-haired black child. The visitors didn't linger. They had been getting acquainted with the child over the past month, and he didn't resist when they picked him up and carried him out to their car. The blond woman watched from the doorway long after the car was gone.
This scene has played out 96 times for Carol Newett over the past two decades, but it never gets any easier. "Steven," she says, "was very special. I had him for 14 months. He was such a fighter. He was born at 23 weeks and weighed only 1 pound--and survived. A medical miracle. He had no visible father, and his mother couldn't care for him, so he became everyone's child at the UCI Medical Center--and when he was 4 months old, he became mine.
"Of course it was hard to give him up. But his new parents are a terrific couple. I couldn't even pick him up to hug him before he left because it would just have made things harder for all of us. But I'd gladly go through the agony of separation rather than give up the 14 beautiful months we spent with this little boy. We had the joy of watching him survive and grow and walk and run. So I'll deal with the pain. You grieve, and then you go on to the next one."
About 95% of the time (Steven was an exception), the "next one" is a baby that has been born drug-addicted, diseased by its own mother. When these children are born, they go through the same withdrawal symptoms as an adult trying to kick the drug habit. It is a painful and frightening way to come into the world, and Carol Newett has become a specialist in dealing with their difficult early months.
The problem is extensive and growing. The number of drug-addicted babies is buried in the statistics of high-risk infants born in Orange County, so specific numbers are hard to come by. But a spokesman for Children's Services of the Orange County Social Services Agency--which deals constantly with this problem--estimates that several hundred drug-addicted babies are born every month in the county, and the number is growing. The fact that the mother is an addict causes other problems as well. Most of these babies are premature and are born without prenatal care, which makes them highly susceptible to a whole range of health problems.
When addict parents are identified, the courts can take the infants into protective custody, and a newly formed county medical team that includes social workers as well as doctors investigates the case and recommends both medical treatment and custody of the child once the immediate medical crisis has passed. If no immediate family is considered appropriate or competent, people like Carol Newett come into the picture--foster parents with demonstrated skills and special qualifications to care for such children.
Newett says she got into foster parenting because of an article in The Times 21 years ago. The Newetts were living in Los Angeles then, and Carol had been told by her doctor that she should have no more children after her fifth child was born. She was restive with that decision until she saw a story about the great need for foster parents. "We still had extra love to give, so I took my first foster baby."
She said it was a family decision. "I couldn't have done any of this without my husband's total support," she says, "or without the support of my children. Everyone in the house has to agree; otherwise, someone will sabotage it."
Carol and her husband, Ed, grew up in the same Los Angeles neighborhood and have now been married for 34 years. "My husband and I both came from difficult home lives," she says matter-of-factly. "Maybe that's why I want to see every baby wanted and loved. But I've always been very careful not to impose this need on my own children. I don't think I ever said to them, 'I'll deal with your problem when I finish with the baby.' "
From the beginning, Newett took only infants ("After I'm without a baby for a while, my arms ache to hold one"), but she didn't get into drug-addicted children until the family moved to Orange County 12 years ago. "I never heard of this problem when I started taking foster babies," she says, "but it's grown steadily since I've been here."
She had special training that qualifies her to take high-risk infants who require heart monitors or oxygen. The babies sleep in the bedroom beside her so she can pick up instantly on any changes in breathing, and she has become a close friend of the Fire Department emergency team at a nearby fire station.
She hasn't yet had to call on them, but a fire truck drives by her home regularly "to show the new guys where I live." She is fiercely protective of her foster children. "I make a lot of demands on the bureaucracy for my babies. They've been shortchanged, and I want to see them get the best."