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COVER STORY : Drugs' Earliest Victims Face a Life of Challenges : As Thousands of Substance-Exposed Babies Reach School Age, Relatives and City Agencies Struggle to Help Them Overcome Disabilities.

September 26, 1993|DIANE SEO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Sondra was born, she had so much cocaine, morphine and heroin in her system that her body was wracked by spasms. Moments later, she suffered a stroke and lost all movement in her legs and left arm.

Seven years have passed, and Sondra is now a bubbly and attractive second-grader at 24th Street School in South-Central. Aside from the hour a day in which she receives help with math and reading, she is in regular classes and has no physical disabilities.

Occasionally, however, Sondra behaves strangely--bolstering her relatives' belief that she is still damaged by drugs.

"One time, when a social worker was over, (Sondra) walked in the room with a big knife, started waving it in big circles and told the social worker to get out of the house," said her grandmother, Julia Stackhouse, who was awarded custody of Sondra and her two older sisters, who were also prenatally exposed to drugs. "I was shocked because this was just bizarre behavior. This is not what a normal child would do."

As an increasing number of children exposed prenatally to drugs enter school, teachers throughout the nation are struggling to meet their complex needs. The problem is especially prevalent in Los Angeles County, where almost 3,000 children a year are exposed to drugs and alcohol while in the womb, according to the county Department of Children's Services. Nationwide, 750,000 substance-exposed babies are born each year, according to the National Assn. of Perinatal Addiction Research and Education.

Although the practice among many pregnant women of using drugs and alcohol is not new, the problem became startlingly evident a few years ago when the first large wave of children exposed to crack cocaine as infants entered kindergarten. Many of these children are now in the second and third grades, exhibiting signs of learning and behavioral problems that put them at a high risk of failure.

"We look at prenatal drug exposure as a risk factor, just like other things, including lack of health care, poverty and violence in the home," said Carol Cole, a teacher who works in the Los Angeles Unified School District's special education infant preschool department. "Some children don't come to our attention because they're doing fine, but others have more severe problems."

Although the Los Angeles school district does not keep track of how many prenatally drug-exposed students it enrolls, one indication that the number is growing is that the special education population is increasing at a far faster rate than the general student population. In April, 1986, the district enrolled 49,927 special education students. In April, 1993, that figure grew 23% to 65,062, while the district's total enrollment grew only 10% during the same period.

"There's a proliferation of young women taking drugs and having babies, and we're seeing an outgrowth of this," said Wayne Foglesong, a specialist in the district's information and technology division. "But the increase is also a result of many other factors," including the influx of immigrants who bring children with special education needs.

Prenatal drug exposure does not in itself qualify a student for special education, but many affected students are placed in special education because they are physically or mentally handicapped, emotionally disturbed or suffer learning disabilities. Although there is no such thing as a typical drug-exposed child, many display common symptoms, including hyperactivity, speech and language deficiencies, memory lapses, mood swings and attention problems.

Since 1986, researchers at the Chicago-based National Assn. for Perinatal Addiction Research and Education have been following the developmental progress of more than 286 drug-exposed children.

So far, the association has found that drugs do have an impact on a child's overall development, but that the child's home environment plays just as much of a role in determining how he or she will function, said Ira J. Chasnoff, president of the association. "Most kids with appropriate intervention can do fine," Chasnoff said. "But teachers need to be properly trained to learn how to work with these children."

Parents or guardians must also make adjustments.

After Sondra was born, Stackhouse and her husband agreed to take the infant and her two older siblings from their drug-addicted mother. Sondra's 8-year-old sister, Natasha, is severely learning-disabled and 20-year-old Roberta has had a long history of emotional problems. (The names of all children in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.)

Stackhouse, a marketing coordinator for Good Shepherd Home Health Agency in Glendale, said her 40-year-old daughter sees the girls, but only on occasion because she still uses drugs.

"She says she loves her children very much, but can't take care of them right now," Stackhouse said. "Whenever she is ready to see the children, she calls. But we don't push it."

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