SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Prenatal drug exposure is leading to an increase in babies born into a life of dependency making them the youngest victims of the heroin and opioid epidemic.
According to Robin Stoneman, Registered Nurse at CoxHealth, withdrawals start as soon as the umbilical cord is cut. That's when babies who are exposed in utero immediately lose their source. The pain babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome go through to rid their bodies of the powerful drugs is similar to what adults experience.
"The cry," Stoneman said. "You hear it, you never forget it. It's very high pitched, wailing; almost a desperate-sounding cry. It's just one of those things, once you hear it, you never forget it."
Babies born dependent on heroin, methadone, or other addictive opioids often struggle to eat and sleep, vomit, have diarrhea, breathe fast, and are extremely irritable. Stoneman said the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit almost always has at least one baby withdrawing specifically from opioids.
Most recent data shows nationwide, 22,000 babies were born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome in 2012- five times more than in 2002. That means a baby was born dependent on drugs every 25 minutes. The average stay in the NICU for babies withdrawing is 17 days with a cost averaging $66,000. A majority of the bill is being paid through state Medicaid programs.
If drugs are found in a mother's system during delivery and she isn't in a treatment program, the baby could be referred to the Department of Social Services and become a foster child.
"I think that every foster kid that we've had has had a relationship with a drug situation," foster parent Terry Mitchell said.
He and his wife, Jennifer, have fostered 14 children. A foster child himself, Terry has a big family tree. Currently, he and his wife have 10 kids, seven of whom were fostered or adopted into the family. They got 2-year-old Nora right after she was discharged from the hospital after birth.
"She tested positive for 13 different drugs," Mitchell said. "She had some issues with sight and hearing. She's had a couple of surgeries. She's doing much better now. She's actually thriving, but it was a long road. I mean, sleepless nights of her going through withdrawal."
Even after babies overcome withdrawals, their battle with addiction isn't necessarily over.
Hundreds of children in Missouri are affected every year by one or both parents abusing substances. Recovering heroin addict Eean Phillips said parents don't always have ill intentions.
"I thought I was being a good parent by just being there and stuff, but I wasn't really there; physically yes and emotionally, I was just absent." He's seen a lot of stuff that he probably shouldn't have seen. He's seven and he remembers a lot of that stuff, so I try not to focus on that stuff though. I try to set what I can do toward the future and hopefully he'll see a change instead of what used to be."
The Mitchells said they never got into fostering thinking they'd have 10 kids, but they did it to help the children have a safe and environment to thrive with hopes biological parents could get back on their feet.
Making sure the child is in a safe environment back home is where Stoneman said we need improvement, for all children, especially those just coming into the world.
"I'm ready for the government to step in and help," Stoneman said. "I think it's necessary. You know, we've got to have these safety nets in place for these families. I know that the mothers are crying out for help too. It's a lot. Not only are they dealing with it (withdrawals) themselves, but then they have to take a baby home who's dealing with it as well."
Watch our full series on The Quiet Epidemic - Heroin and Opioid Addiction in the Ozarks here
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