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Punish or Protect?

Addicted moms bearing addicted or substance-exposed babies: It's a situation that some say warrants prosecution. But others favor a softer approach.


She has never met the woman who has borne eight drug-exposed children. But after having adopted the last four in a matter of six years, Barbara Harris wants to make her stop.

At first, the Stanton homemaker asked the district attorney if he would pursue child abuse charges. When that didn't work, she went on talk shows and lobbied politicians. Now, she's pushing a bill that would make bearing drug babies a crime in California and soliciting private donations to pay female substance abusers to obtain long-term contraception.

"If they are that irresponsible," she said, "somebody has to take control."

Like other foster parents, grandmothers, social workers and hospital workers left to deal with multiple drug-exposed siblings, Harris is frustrated and angry that there are few real consequences for their addicted mothers who, in the most egregious cases, produce two premature children a year.

Similarly frustrated, officials nationwide have been experimenting with increasingly punitive ways to curb the births of drug babies since the problem exploded with crack cocaine in the 1980s. Since then, there has been positive news that the babies may not be as bad off medically as was first feared, but there is also growing concern that a small group of women is disproportionately responsible for the babies' tragic circumstances.

In 1992, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 5.5% of all newborns were exposed to illegal drugs during pregnancy, 18% to alcohol and 20% to tobacco, according to a study by the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

That same year, there were 69,000 drug babies born in California, according to the state Department of Social Services.

There is no known research on how many drug babies are from the same mother, but social workers say that more often than not, a small group of the mothers have had one and will have another one.

"Not too many have one and stop," said social worker Denise Prybella, who knows of women with as many as 11 drug-exposed children.

Becoming the mother of an addicted child would seem to be the ultimate incentive for many women to enter treatment or use birth control. But experts say the phenomenon of multiple drug babies testifies to the power of drugs, the particular vulnerability of women addicts--who sometimes trade sex for drugs--and the lack of appropriate and available treatment programs.

Ira Chasnoff, president of the Chicago-based National Assn. for Families and Addiction Research and Education, said many addicted women live in a male-dominated world with very little power in their day-to-day lives. "Often the only times a woman feels safe or protected is when she is engaging in a sexual encounter," he said. For most, who have a history of being sexually abused, getting pregnant is a way of expressing their femininity and sexuality.

Contrary to conventional thinking, removing their children only exacerbates the problem, Chasnoff said. "Studies have shown that when you automatically take babies away from [an addicted woman], she is much more likely to get pregnant again, faster, with a replacement baby."

Another Los Angeles activist, the legal guardian for five of her daughter's six drug-exposed children, said she used to think her daughter would keep having children until social workers let her keep one. "She's like a cat trying to replace a lost kitten," said the woman, who serves on the boards of several caregiver organizations.

The 58-year-old widow with five grown children of her own began taking in her daughter's children 18 years ago, when the girl dropped out of high school and began running with a crowd that used PCP, cocaine and alcohol. All five grandchildren have medical problems, including heart murmurs and learning disabilities, and qualify for public assistance, she said.

The woman, whose name The Times is withholding, doesn't believe in adoption. Nevertheless, she was so angry with her daughter, she once asked a doctor to give her a hysterectomy. Now, she said, her daughter is 34, still trying to get off drugs, but apparently can no longer have children. The woman said she feels "blessed."

Similarly, Harris, 43, also wanted to keep her then-foster daughter's siblings together. Six years ago, she and her husband, Smitty, who already had six children between them, became foster parents of an 8-month-old girl, the fifth child of the Los Angeles woman who Harris said has had the same partner for years. The baby tested positive to PCP, crack and heroin. Four months later, the Harrises heard she had a new brother and took him in.

Over the next two years, the woman had two more babies, and Harris took each in, eventually adopting them and growing more frustrated and angry each time. "Even though it was my choice to take them in, I resented her for having so many and not caring," she said. "It was like she just disposed of them and it didn't matter."

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