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Getting It Together : Rehab Center Helps Mother Kick Drug Habit, Regain Children


ORANGE — What Karen Bagby wanted for Christmas was a second chance to be a good mother.

She got it 10 days ago, when her 4-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter came home to an apartment that smelled of fresh paint, new carpet and a Christmas tree. Like most good holiday yarns, her story has a happy ending--so far.

Fifteen months ago Bagby's children, both from a former marriage, were taken away by the courts because she was a cocaine addict and thus considered an unfit mother. But today Bagby has been drug-free for nine months and her children have been returned to her. Barring any new problems they are together for good.

Once a $700-a-day crack cocaine user, Bagby is now one of the success stories offered by administrators of a county perinatal drug treatment program begun last year to help addicted mothers go straight. An intensive regimen of counseling and drug screening, it offers such women their only chance of regaining custody of their children.

No longer addicted, Bagby is expecting a healthy baby boy in April. But the 27-year-old measures success a day at a time. "I'm a recovering addict and I know I'll always have that sickness, that disease. . . ," Bagby said. Pausing and patting her stomach, she continued. "But it can be controlled. This child will have something special. He'll have his mother from the day he's born."

Bagby knows, perhaps better than most, what she's up against.

Heavyset and dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, she is unemotional and matter-of-fact most of the time. She softens when she talks about her children and how she wants their memories to be different from her own.

As a child she rarely saw her father sober. As an adult she has watched her sister, once her only ally in an otherwise loveless household, descend into the destructive apathy of cocaine. Her sister, Bagby said, has lost custody of her four children, including a sickly baby girl to whom she gave birth while she was high on crack.

"I guess I came from what you call a dysfunctional family," Bagby said, pausing over the word she has learned during her sessions with a county therapist. "There were always problems. There wasn't any love."

Her story is no more dramatic than those of 120 other women now undergoing treatment and rehabilitation in Orange County's Health Care Agency's Perinatal Treatment Program. And there are scores more on the waiting list for the 36-week program.

Unlike Bagby, who lost her children at ages 3 and 5 after her mother reported her drug abuse, most of the women in the program lost custody of their babies at birth because the newborns' tiny bodies were filled with heroin or cocaine or speed.

The problem is a burgeoning one in Orange County--340 babies were born addicted last year, double the number the year before.

Most of the women are unwilling to tell their stories publicly because of the shame and fear attached to being a mother-addict. A large part of their therapy at the county program, however, deals with breaking down the walls of denial and helping the women acknowledge their addiction and accept responsibility for the myriad of mental, physical and emotional problems they have imposed upon their children.

Bagby's children were born without noticeable physical effects of her drug use because she was not using heavily then. But she acknowledges that they will deal with insecurities and other emotional scarring because of the mothering they missed when she was strung out on cocaine in later years.

Her children, not named in this story because they are still minors protected by court confidentiality rules, never saw her use drugs, Bagby said.

But sometimes they woke up to find that mommy was not at home because she had spent the night in a crack house getting high. Her daughter, then 5 years old, often would act as mother when Bagby did come home, bringing her soup and offering hugs to soothe the blues that followed the drug highs.

Ten days ago, on the first night of the family's reunion, it was clear who was mom.

Surrounded by big plastic bags filled with their toys and clothes from their former foster homes, the children sat on the floor of their small bedroom drawing pictures with colored pencils. Occasionally they ventured out to the living room to show off their work or to ask their mother, again, how many days it was until Christmas.

"We're a different family now," Bagby said. "They're getting all the love and attention that drugs got before."

Bagby entered the county's drug-treatment program for mothers a few months after she lost custody of her children in September, 1988. That same year the county had begun offering its first centralized and comprehensive rehabilitation program for drug-addicted mothers.

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