Helping the helpless

February 20, 1992

Too often, the tiniest victims of the drug scourge go unnoticed in the mayhem of crime, punishment and shattered lives. They are the premature, developmentally challenged and, in some cases, stillborn children born to women who have lost the war against chemical dependency.

A welcome bright spot in this depressing scenario is the early success of the Center for Addiction and Pregnancy at the Francis Scott Key Medical Center. The overwhelming majority of the program's first graduates -- 48 babies since May -- were born hale and healthy. All but 10 were average or above average in birth weight. Only five had need of the neonatal intensive care that keeps alive fully one quarter of the babies born to drug-abusing women. The cost of caring for those in intensive care -- about $8,640 per child -- was a fraction of the $24,750 such treatment would have cost outside the program.

This cheering news affirms what health experts have known for some time: Dealing with pregnant, chemically dependent women requires an integrated approach marrying drug treatment, prenatal care and psychiatric help. The center was designed with this goal in mind, providing a wide range of social and medical services intended not only to bring healthy children into the world, but also to improve the world into which they are born.

This is but one stitch in the complicated task of mending torn lives. But it helps to even the score -- at least initially -- for the growing number of babies exposed to addictive drugs in the womb. The need for programs like this one is staggering. The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates that the number of at-risk infants is rising exponentially, peaking at 13,765 in 1988 -- the last year for which information is available.

It's good news that even in these extraordinarily tight fiscal times, the state managed to find $250,000 in funding for the program this year. But that is cost-effective budgeting; this is the sort of social program well worth its weight in hard currency and social benefits. At a minimum, its participants -- many of whom were living in crack houses or on the streets -- give birth to healthy infants, saving state and federal governments tens of thousands in medical costs. In full flower, the program can make a real difference in the lives of troubled women and their children.

The drug epidemic grows worse each day, and the solutions are neither clear-cut nor close at hand. Programs like this one represent tiny, but critical steps toward creating a better world for the birth lottery's innocent victims.

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