Two-year-old Nicholas laughs and smiles as his foster parents, Kay and Jack Corrodi, pull him in a wagon around their Malibu home.
But no one knows when his mood will darken, when he will start throwing toys at the sky or banging his head against the wall.
At such times, Kay Corrodi says, "he's just really violent. He'll bite you really hard. He'll bite his own chin."
His foster parents say the toddler's problems started before he was born, when his mother used PCP and cocaine during her pregnancy. The Corrodis--and doctors they have consulted--blame his impulsive behavior on the drugs he was exposed to while in the womb.
Nicholas (the boy's name has been changed to protect his privacy) is among a growing number of drug-damaged children. Though scenes of babies tossing and turning in the throes of drug withdrawal have become a familiar sight in inner-city hospitals, the long-term damage--both physical and mental--is just coming to light.
In trying to understand Nicholas and six other drug-damaged children they have cared for over the years, the Corrodis sought help from the UCLA Family Assistance Project, which has been researching the long-term effects of drugs on babies.
"I kept going back to UCLA and describing his behavior," Kay Corrodi said. "I asked whether he could be schizophrenic or autistic. They (the doctors) said, you know we'd like to label them, you know we'd love to know what is wrong with him, but we don't know yet."
Caring for drug-exposed children is not a challenge the Corrodis sought, though they now embrace it with what a UCLA pediatrician described as a "pioneering spirit." Jack, 53, and Kay, 57, both real estate agents, now serve as foster parents to Nicholas and two other drug-exposed babies.
The struggle to find help for their first foster child brought the Corrodis to their current involvement with drug-exposed children. When the Corrodis took in the newborn girl almost five years ago, they didn't know she had been exposed to drugs. But they immediately suspected that something was amiss.
The baby was tiny, weighing only 3 pounds, and was unresponsive. And after a few weeks, the Corrodis realized the baby couldn't see.
Alarmed by the discovery, the couple began asking questions of the county Department of Children's Services and the UCLA program. They discovered the girl was the offspring of a cocaine-using mother. "That was our introduction into the world of damaged babies, and it's really been an eye-opener for us," recalled Kay Corrodi.
"I was so overwhelmed with the thought that these mothers were damaging these children like that I wanted to go up and down the street and tell people what had happened to this child that was so damaged," she said. "I was just trying to get all the information that I could about it. (The crisis) was just surfacing. I contacted every resource I could find, and I was asking so many questions of everybody.
"They told me, 'We aren't the ones taking care of these children. We don't really know all the day-to-day problems, you do.' "
Dr. Judy Howard, director of the UCLA Family Assistance Project, credited the Corrodis with a willingness to aggressively probe the health-care system for answers. "What's so wonderful about the Corrodis is . . . they were secure enough to say, this is not a normal baby. They asked us for more services," Howard said.
Those requests led the UCLA Family Assistance Project to develop a model for providing support services and child-care training to people caring for drug-exposed children, said Vickie Kropenske, a public health nurse for the UCLA Family Assistance Project. "It started with Kay and Jack. We had a social worker and a public health nurse working with them," Kropenske said.
Using this experience as a model, the UCLA program began training pairs of county social workers and public health nurses to make visits to the homes of drug-exposed children as part of a federally funded experiment. At the homes, the teams examine the children and teach the care-givers how to take care of them.
The Corrodis, who have seven adopted children ranging in age from 6 to 16 years old, got interested in the foster-care system when their attempts to adopt an eighth child failed because the birth mother changed her mind.
The couple decided they couldn't face the heartbreak of another failed adoption. "We thought we could enjoy the children without financial responsibility (the county pays for foster care) and without the emotional responsibility, though we became awfully attached to them," Kay Corrodi said.
The first foster child stayed with them for about 2 1/2 years. The others stays were short term, a couple of weeks to a month. The three children they have now have been with them about a year. Eventually, the children are returned to their parents or are adopted.
"The whole idea is to reunite them with their parents," Kay Corrodi said.