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A Vicious Circle : Now 42, Linda Navarro Inherited a Drug Habit and Life of Pain From Heroin-Addicted Parents

May 19, 1991|ANN JAPENGA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SEATTLE — As drug busts go, this wasn't so dramatic.

Linda Navarro was crossing the parking lot of the juvenile courthouse where she worked as a public defender. She was wearing a new, camel-colored cashmere suit, and her arms were full of legal files.

A man she knew approached her and said, "Hey, Linda, I have to talk to you." Coming closer, he flipped out his badge and said, "You're under arrest for violation of the controlled substances act."

No loudspeakers, flashing lights or TV cameras.

As the story behind Navarro's arrest unfolded, however, a drama did surface--a lifelong drama explaining why a respected attorney would risk everything by succumbing to heroin addiction.

In fact, Navarro had been hurtling toward this fate ever since she was an infant in a Harlem apartment, twitching and shrieking in the throes of heroin withdrawal. She was born a drug baby, heir to a family legacy of heroin use.

Her arrest and subsequent exposure brought Navarro, 42, relief from a life of hiding. "I was always struggling with this thing alone," she says. "I hated it so much. It was just so big and so horrible. I was afraid if anybody found out, I would lose everything I'd worked for."

But she has little in common with the high-profile drug babies of today, other than her exposure to drugs in the womb. When Navarro was born, there were no drug-baby specialists to treat her, no magazine cover stories eliciting public sympathy for the "innocent victims" of the drug epidemic.

With researchers and the media now devoting considerable attention to the plight of the estimated 370,000 "crack babies" born annually, Navarro's story raises the disturbing specter of an entirely forgotten generation of children dependent on drugs from birth.

Some authorities say such children are born physiologically dependent on their parents' drug of choice; others argue the children's predisposition to addiction may be genetic or purely environmental. In any case, it's fair to say that a child like Navarro, born into a family of drug abuse, "never had a chance," says Dr. Xylina Bean, associate director of neonatology at Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital/Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Many infants were probably exposed to heroin in the womb during the heroin vogue of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Bean says--the same craze that snared Navarro's parents, famed jazz trumpeter Theodore (Fats) Navarro and his wife, Rena, a beautiful rebel from a middle-class Seattle family. Fats Navarro died of a heroin overdose at age 26 the year after Linda was born.

Heroin use "was a big East Coast phenomenon at that time," Bean says, estimating that at the height of the heroin craze, as many as 15% of women in large East Coast cities may have experimented with the drug. No one knows how exposure to heroin before birth would affect someone like Navarro 42 years later. Few long-range studies have been conducted on children dependent on drugs from birth, and none have looked at men and women of Navarro's age who may have been hooked for a lifetime, says Dr. Geraldine Wilson, associate professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Wilson has studied of heroin-addicted mothers and their children.

Although Linda Navarro's story may be one of the first to spotlight this neglected population, in some ways she is not representative. Drug experts say that longtime heroin addicts often die of infectious diseases or cardiac problems, or end up in prison or on the streets.

Navarro, on the other hand, managed to raise a son on her own and to earn two degrees from the University of Washington while maintaining a heroin habit. She passed the state bar examination in 1981 and went to work as a public defender, earning a reputation for her visceral dedication to the disadvantaged.

She was earning $4,000 a month at the time of her arrest in February, 1987. Her license to practice law was suspended. She was reinstated briefly, but after a drug relapse last summer, she was forced to resign from the bar and now cannot afford a car or health insurance. She struggles to support herself and her 15-year-old son, Amilcar, on the income she earns by preparing legal briefs for $5 an hour.

"The fact that she is alive is a miracle," says Dr. Janice Keller Phelps, a now-retired specialist in addictions who treated Navarro. "She is a miracle."

After work one recent afternoon, Navarro frantically raced to the gas company to pay an overdue utility bill. "I'm always chasing shut-off notices," she says.

After paying the bill, Navarro arrived home to find three teen-agers--her son and two friends--slouched in front of the television set.

After mixing frozen orange juice in the kitchen, where a tofu concoction was coagulating in a frying pan, Navarro retreated upstairs to her bedroom. The downstairs has been ceded to Amilcar and any of his friends currently in residence, she explains. Given her own rootless upbringing, Navarro cannot help but take in kids who need a place to stay.

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