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Love Repairs Adoptive Babies' Ruined Lives

December 23, 1990|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Linda Darden smiled at the infant making gurgling sounds in the baby carrier balanced on the lap of her husband, Jim.

"Hi, Danny," she cooed, patting the baby's long, dark hair. "What are you doing? Can you see me?"

The 8-month-old infant, who suffered brain damage at birth and is thought to be a drug baby, appeared to look at Linda.

"They don't even know if he's aware of his surroundings," she says. "I think he's aware, but I've had two doctors tell me that I'm wrong."

Seated in the admissions office at Miller's Children's Hospital in Long Beach, the Anaheim couple had brought the baby in for tests to determine why he was choking on the special formula that must be fed to him through a gastrostomy tube in his stomach.

As foster parents for "medically fragile" babies and babies whose mothers took drugs, the Dardens have made scores of trips to hospitals over the past eight years, usually in the middle of the night.

The drug-addicted babies who share their home often require special medication to prevent seizures. Many have feeding, respiratory and sleep problems. And because they're going through withdrawal, they're often irritable and agitated.

The medically fragile children arrive with special equipment such as oxygen tanks and apnea monitors that sound an alarm if they stop breathing. They also require special medication and constant supervision.

Because of the difficulty in finding adoptive homes for these babies, they often spend years in foster care.

While it's not unusual for a foster family to adopt one of these babies, the Dardens have adopted two drug babies within the past three years, and they recently obtained legal guardianship of a third drug-affected little girl whom they ultimately plan to adopt.

All three girls have had serious medical problems. And because their biological mothers took drugs while they were pregnant, 5-year-old Priscilla, 3-year-old Jessie Sue and 2-year-old Becky have learning disabilities and face unknown future medical problems.

But after providing at least two years of love and care for each child, the couple couldn't bear the thought of giving them up.

"It's real hard to let go," Linda says. "The pain was too difficult."

So at a time of their lives when their daughter is married and their son is in his senior year of high school, 43-year-old Linda and 45-year-old Jim Darden are raising three young girls, each with special needs.

This is in addition to caring for the two infants: Danny and Joshua, a 3-week-old drug baby.

To accommodate everyone, the Dardens took out a second mortgage in order to add a second story to their Anaheim tract house, giving them four more bedrooms and a nursery off the new master bedroom.

For Linda Darden, who can't remember the last time she slept more than three hours at a stretch and never knows when the next medical crisis will occur, being mom to a houseful of children with special needs is not an imposition.

"We're so fortunate that our two children were normal and that we never had a lot of trauma in our life," says Linda, who became a foster parent in 1972 after an 18-month-old girl began showing up at her front door at 6 a.m. clad only in underpants. The girl's mother was never even aware she was gone.

"I knew there were other kids like her out there," she says. "I saw a great need and I wanted to help."

Linda began taking in medically fragile babies, many of whom were drug-addicted, in 1982.

"These are children who really need our help and we feel we can do that," she says. "I don't care if they're 18-hour screamers. I love to do what I do, and it's real easy for me to love them."

Linda gazed down at Danny in the carrier on her husband's lap.

"I can't imagine anything worse than not being wanted and loved and needed in the beginning," she says. "And so when I take these babies, I feel I have something to offer them. If nothing else, I can give them a good start."

The drug-addicted babies that Linda now cares for come through the Orange County Social Services Agency's Emergency Shelter Home Program, which provides short-term emergency shelter for abused, neglected or abandoned children until the courts decide what will happen to them.

Since July, 1987, 536 newborn to 1-year-olds have gone through the Emergency Shelter Home Program; 85% to 90% were drug babies, with cocaine being the most frequently detected drug.

The Darden family, one of nearly 50 in the program, has cared for seven drug-addicted babies over the past 18 months.

"Every one of those babies has a different need," says Linda, whose three girls illustrate some of the medical problems many drug-addicted babies experience as they grow up. (To assure confidentiality, the real names of Danny, Joshua and Becky have been changed.)

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