Thousands of children are born in the state of Florida each year addicted to drugs. And the decisions their parents make, before learning they are pregnant and after, could mean the difference between giving their child a chance at a normal life, or impairing the mental and physical development permanently.
Doctors warn that expectant mothers who are addicted to opiates can’t just quit cold turkey. So, many pregnant women have to go through methadone treatments to wean off their drug of choice. Those methadone treatments to ease the impact on their unborn children, unfortunately still cause many children to be born severely addicted.
“All the babies go through withdrawals differently,” Dr. Aaron Germain a Neonatologist at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital said. “We do see babies who have been exposed to lower doses of opioids alongside the mother and have significant symptoms. And, there are other babies exposed to very high doses and have a shorter course for withdrawal.”
Some infants are treated in the neonatal intensive care unit for a couple of days. Others remain in the hospital for months.
Germain said they don’t deliver the babies at the hospital they just treat them. And children going through withdrawals require 24 hour care to save their lives.
“It’s the bodies dependence on the drug. So, the nervous system is going haywire,” Germain said. “A majority of infants we treat are from mother's in recovery.”
Infants begin to suffer from withdrawals hours after they are born. The symptoms cause the infants unbearable pain from “increased muscle tone, muscle tremors, difficulty sleeping, difficulty feeding, poor weight gain, seizures” just to name a few, according to Germain.
ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska spoke to a mother who just gave birth. When we interviewed her at the hospital her daughter Madison was just 10 days old and in the neonatal ICU undergoing treatments for drug addiction. Madison’s mom, who asked that we only identify her as Nicole, said Madison is the second child she has given birth to while seeking treatment for her addiction to opiates. She’s been on methadone maintenance since she first learned she was pregnant 16 months ago.
“It was extremely emotional,” Nicole said. “I had no idea what to expect. I was told every child experiences it differently. I never wanted to go through that again and getting pregnant with Madison two months after Landon was born was extremely difficult to process.”
Nicole said, like many people, she got addicted to opiates after a car crash. At the height of her addiction she said she accidentally got pregnant. Then her life changed.
“Having my first son was not only an eye-opener, but a life changing experience for me, that I have been able to turn my life around,” Nicole said. “I haven't used any pain killers in about 16 months. There are people out there where your children do save your life and in my case that is exactly what happened, I am actually so grateful. I wish it would have played out differently for their sakes. I never want to see children go through something like this.”
Nicole’s story is a rarity. A majority of drug addicted parents do not kick their habits and continue to use drugs throughout their pregnancy or go on methadone treatments then relapse once their child is born. When that happens a large majority of infants are taken away from their drug addicted parents and placed in foster care. A few are lucky enough to be adopted into loving homes.
“These kids are victims of circumstance and the doctors are doing everything they can do,” DeAnne DeCicco said.
DeCicco and her husband adopted their child Enzo when has six days old. Enzo turns four next month and on the outside seems like a normal kid. But, mentally and physically he has a lot of problems.
DeCicco said Enzo was in the hospital for 31 days. He was born 8 pounds 12 ounces and after going through severe withdrawals he got down to less than four pounds.
“These kids have a lot of different things in their system and they are not 100 percent clear on how much or what exactly it is,” DeCicco said. “You have to kind of wean them off methadone and morphine to try and help them cause they are in inconsolable pain. It is a screaming you can not imagine. They are vomiting, they are seizing, they have diarrhea, they have no sucking ability so most of them are on feeding tubes.”
Statistics from the Florida Department of Health from 2011 to 2013 show a marked increase in children born addicted to drugs in the Tampa Bay area.
For the entire state of Florida during that time period 4,365 children were born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. Of those more than a third were in the Tampa Bay area.
Reports from the health department show that the counties with the highest number of children born with NAS were in Hillsborough, 324, Pinellas, 276, Manatee, 170, and Sarasota 175, and Pasco County 256.
DeCicco said Enzo was lucky he found a good home. If he went into foster care like a lot of the other children born addicted to drugs, she said Enzo would not have survived.
“He’s allergic to everything,” DeCicco said. He’s got everything under the sun. We were running into ‘oh my god, he is going to die.’ It was so many close calls it has been more than I can handle some times.”
Enzo’s days are packed with tons of educational programs and physical therapy. If there is anything that a doctor has found to help children born addicted lead normal lives as adults DeCicco says they will try it. She said she loves Enzo no matter what and she urges other people who want to adopt children to think about adopting a child addicted to drugs.
“When you have these type children that already come out of the womb, unfortunately damaged, you have to look at it as be happy for who they are and what they can accomplish,” DeCicco said. “Every child needs love a home structure and not everybody is perfect and these children ,just because of what happened to them doesn't mean that they are damaged, because they are not perfect. They have a lot of love to give and they have a beautiful soul and it's a shame nobody wants them.”