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Kansas City Project For Crack Babies

January 15, 1991

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ Growing numbers of crack babies, many brain-damaged and too jittery to be cuddled, are the target of a program aimed at helping alleviate their trauma.

Children’s Mercy Hospital is coordinating more than $700,000 in donated funds, including a $450,000 federal grant, to help hospitals and state agencies spot drug-addicted women and treat their troubled offspring.

″It’s really to find out if a particular way of working with (these) families is better than others,″ said Alice Kitchen, the head of Social Services at Children’s Mercy and coordinator of the task force that put together the program.

Health care specialists say up to 15 percent of all newborns in the city’s hospitals are born to women who use crack cocaine.

The project, dubbed the Team for Infants Endangered by Substance Abuse, or TIES, coordinates various agencies and institutions to provide prenatal care and drug counseling for addicted mothers and postnatal treatment for the infants.

Kitchen said a similar program has been used at the University of California-Los Angeles for about five years.

Dr. Rachelle Tyler, a UCLA pediatrician, estimates that about 1 million crack-exposed babies are born each year in the United States.

The children vary widely in the severity of their handicaps, Tyler said. But she thinks the children could improve if taken out of chaotic households where they are subject to more crack exposure and abuse.

″Though, even then you may not be able to override what has happened to these children,″ the doctor said.

Recent studies at the University of California at San Diego show up to 40 percent of crack babies suffer from irreversible brain damage.

Officials say that as these babies grow they are unable to form relationships with other people and are prone to violent outbursts when frustrated.

″Instead of working out a puzzle, they pick it up and throw it,″ said Dr. Howard Kilbride, neonatologist and director of the nursery at Truman Medical Center.

Karen Peppard, a teacher at a center for abused preschoolers, Children’s Place, said some of the jumpy infants had what she termed a ″startle-reflex″ when touched by other people.

Dr. Mahmoud Ahmed, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, said Los Angeles studies show older crack children have short attention spans, are hyperactive and suffer from learning disabilities and poor eye-hand coordination.

Child care specialists say children of crack addicts need one-on-one teacher attention to learn, and some educators have developed ″infant massages″ to accustom newborns to being cuddled.

Ms. Peppard said she treated a 13-month-old crack baby who threw repeated screaming tantrums. She said she found it almost impossible to console the baby when he got upset.

After six months of undivided attention and a relaxed school environment, Ms. Peppard said the child’s startle-reflex had diminished, and he was less irritable.

Such limited success stories are the driving force behind the Kansas City plan to counsel pregnant drug users and care for their emotionally disturbed children.

In the classroom at Children’s Place, there will be one teacher for every two infants. An ″apnea monitor″ will be on hand to keep tabs on heart rates and breathing of napping babies because crack-exposed newborns are especially susceptible to sudden infant death syndrome.

While the children are at Children’s Place, mothers will spend the days at a drug treatment center.

Ms. Peppard said she planned on using soft lighting and soothing music to relax the hyperactive infants.

″I’m hoping that I’m making a difference for the potential of these kids,″ she said.

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