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The Problem of Drug Babies

AN increasing number of babies are being born addicted to drugs as the result of substance abuse by the mother. The precise scope of this national tragedy is not possible to determine. However, there are probably hundreds of thousands of drug-exposed babies born each year. An estimated 375,000 infants are born each year to drug-using mothers. Not only are many infants exposed prenatally to drugs, but many other children are at risk of mistreatment and neglect because the parents or the caretaker abuse drugs. An estimated 675,000 children are abused or neglected each year due to drugs. The roots of the problem of drug-addicted babies are deep. One cause is lack of access to care. There are an estimated 300,000 pregnant women who use alcohol and drugs. Yet drug treatment facilities commonly deny access to drug-abusing pregnant women. Only an estimated 10 percent of pregnant women who use alcohol and drugs are able to get treatment for their addiction. A related problem affecting treatment is that pregnant women using illicit drugs may feel reluctant to pursue care for themselves and their babies from fear of criminal prosecution.

The life path of many infants born addicted to drugs is especially difficult. Some drug-exposed babies are abandoned; many end up in a foster home. A relative oftentimes assumes responsibility for care of the child. Children born to drug-addicted mothers ordinarily face enormous medical complications and probable long-term developmental abnormalities. One of the major drugs involved is cocaine. The government has estimated that there may be 30,000 to 100,000 babies born each year to mothers addicted to cocaine and crack. Prenatal cocaine use by the pregnant mother has profound medical ramifications for the child, including the possibility of premature labor and delivery, sudden infant death syndrome, intrauterine growth retardation, neurobehavioral problems, and long-term abnormalities. In general, researchers estimate that drug-exposed infants, during the first 18 years of life, require as much as $750,000 in medical care. Since most of these children are uninsured, the government hence the taxpayer pays the bill.

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The availability of treatment for pregnant mothers who are substance abusers must be increased. Similarly, the medical, emotional, and psychological problems of infants exposed to drugs or alcohol prenatally must be addressed. So too the medical, emotional, and psychological needs of children who have drug-abusing parents must be appropriately treated.

The federal government, joined by state and local government as well as private institutions, must assume responsibility for responding effectively to the many needs of children of substance abusers, including children exposed prenatally to drugs and alcohol. At the present time, less than 11 percent of federal drug money is directed to women who need immediate drug treatment. Less than one percent of federal drug funds are currently spent on addicted pregnant women. This just isn't enough. Federal, state, and local government, helped by private institutions, must muster sufficient funds to provide treatment.

A specific measure to pursue is the development of educational programs intended particularly to discourage drug abuse by women of childbearing age. Pressure must be applied to drug treatment facilities so that such facilities will accept and treat pregnant women who use illicit drugs. Drug treatment facilities should develop better ``outreach'' programs. The development of half-way houses to treat drug-abusing mothers and their newborns should be pursued. Adequate early intervention programs and services for drug-exposed infants is needed.

The problem of drug-addicted babies demands the nation's immediate attention. One way or another, the country must find the means to effectively respond to this serious problem.

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