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Cruel Inheritance : Drug babies are becoming more common in O.C.'s home for abused children. But veiled symptoms and stereotypes may prevent detection of most addicted infants, who face a legacy of fragile health.

April 04, 1993|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORANGE — Baby Boy One sleeps fitfully in the shelter crib, born a slave to speed. That was a few weeks ago, and the newborn's body continues to be racked by withdrawal. He wails inconsolably, trembles from his black curly hair to his booties, but all anyone can do is hold him.

Still he cries himself to utter exhaustion in the darkened nursery of Orangewood, the county's home for abused and abandoned children. Here in a wing expanded last year to accommodate drug babies, lights are lowered and noise muffled because the newborn addicts are so sensitive. A special cradle rocks in wavelike motion and sounds like a mother's womb.

"Most babies normally look at you to make eye contact, but drug babies can't look you in the eye," said Sandy Buckley, senior counselor of Orangewood's nursery. "They might look at you a split second, then they have to look away, because it's too much stimulation."

These are drug-exposed children who have been intercepted. The vast majority go unnoticed. And that is what worries many health care and child specialists.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 7, 1993 Orange County Edition View Part E Page 4 Column 4 View Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Drug babies--In a story Sunday about babies exposed to drugs, The Times incorrectly identified Tim Healey as a doctor. Healey is a pediatric physical therapist and child development specialist.

In Orange County last year, 281 babies--an average of 23 a month--were reported to child welfare authorities for substance exposure in the womb, and experts believe the vast majority go undetected.

"I estimate that number is no more than 20% of the substance-exposed children who exist," said Mary Harris, a manager of the county's Social Services Agency program that works with substance-abusing families, developmentally delayed and medically fragile children. "But overall there really hasn't been an increase in the numbers . . . so I think there has been some progress in the population understanding the dangers of using alcohol and drugs while pregnant."

The California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs estimates that between 72,000 and 85,000 of the 570,366 live births in California involved prenatal drug and alcohol exposure in 1989, and the department estimates that 810,400 women of childbearing age used illicit drugs.

"Thousands of children are at risk for developmental, behavioral and learning difficulties," according to a June, 1992, report on perinatal substance abuse by the state Child Development Programs Advisory Committee that studied the problem.

When Orangewood was built in 1985, its nursery was outfitted for 14 babies. It was unusual, then-director Bill Steiner said, to be presented with substance-exposed babies.

"But certainly," said Steiner, who until recently ran Orangewood's private fund-raising foundation, "over the last eight years it's built into a major problem, and sometimes 40% of the babies in the nursery" got high in their mother's womb.

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Despite a commonly held stereotype that drug babies are mostly born in poor or inner cities, national research shows that the problem cuts evenly through all race and class lines.

"South Orange County is no less susceptible to this happening than a downtown barrio in Santa Ana," said Dr. Timothy Healey, a Santa Ana pediatric physical therapist and child development specialist who has been following the progress of about 370 substance-exposed children throughout Orange County.

Healey sees anywhere from five to 15 kids each week who have been exposed to drugs in the womb, and he just completed a 40-minute video guide for care givers--nurses, social workers and biological parents--of substance-exposed babies that is being used in neonatal centers throughout the country.

Detection can be tricky, especially in such places as Orange County, where cocaine is far and away the drug most abused by pregnant women, Harris said. Whereas heroin addiction often leaves a physical trail of needle tracks, cocaine use is less obvious.

"With cocaine," Healey said, "it can be a longtime user and abuser, but it can also be an attorney. It can be anybody essentially, and so we don't test a lot of the babies, and I definitely feel it's underreported. And I think cocaine more so than any other drug in Orange County."

This is why specialists in the field caution doctors not to overlook possible drug-use symptoms in the mother who comes from a well-off background and bucks the drug mom stereotype. Only a doctor can authorize a drug test for a newborn, and it needs to be drawn very soon after birth.

A mother's acknowledgment of substance abuse during pregnancy, of course, would prompt a drug test. But there are other risk factors to look out for, specialists say, ranging from signs of unstable living conditions to a lack of prenatal care that could be viewed as avoiding drug detection.

The problem is that many health care workers have only limited exposure--a few days at most--with the mothers. Some doctors say this is why it is far better to err on the side of being overly suspicious.

At St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, where more than 5,200 babies were born last year, about one mother a month is tested, said clinical social worker Kerri Mosinski.

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