When Elouise Dangerfield walks into the bedroom, the three children, 4 and under, begin squealing with delight, running for hugs and kisses.
“How you doin’ Tommy? Come say hello to Mama,” she says, sweeping up one of the toddlers for a big, bosomy hug. “How is Roo-Roo?” she coos, using a favorite name for another as she sweeps an arm free to touch the small boy clutching her hem.
This could be a scene from any large family, but there is one major difference: All of the children in Dangerfield’s home were born to drug-abusing mothers.
These are crack babies, three and four years later.
Each month, nearly 250 new babies are born to crack-addicted or chemically dependent women in Los Angeles County. Most end up with temporary moms like Dangerfield, a 55-year-old registered nurse.
Many are born needing a fix, often underweight, sometimes brain-damaged.
During their first hours and weeks of life, they share symptoms similar to those of a junkie in withdrawal–sweats, shakes and a need to suck on something sweet. They have trouble sleeping, sometimes cry incessantly, and often can’t hold food down.
And these are the lucky ones.
Many drug-exposed babies are stillborn or die within hours of birth. Black babies in Los Angeles County, with whom Dangerfield mostly works, are dying at a rate about twice that of babies in the general population, according to county health authorities. In 1991, 15 African-American babies died for every 1,000 live births, compared to 8.7 deaths in the Anglo community and 6.7 among Latinos.
Drug abuse is a major factor in the high death rate, according to Great Beginnings for Black Babies, which is trying to erase substance abuse during pregnancy. Drug-addicted mothers frequently have a starvation-like diet and disregard prenatal care, according to the group.
The crack baby phenomenon was in its infancy during the mid-1980s, when crack, a derivative of cocaine, began to be widely used on the streets. It is now in its adolescence.
The crack babies are growing up. And for the past seven years, many of them have wound up in homes like Elouise Dangerfield’s. She has evolved from a foster parent to the administrator of two small homes that provide care to 12 children, with a staff of a dozen or so women. Some children stay only a few months before returning to their parents or moving to a foster home or another placement; others stay for years. Dangerfield is in the process of adopting one of the first children who came to live with her, a boy, now 8.
The county Department of Children’s Services, which oversees the program, will place nearly 3,000 drug-exposed infants this year. The agency places its top priority on returning the children to their biological families. While the children are in placement homes, parents are offered drug counseling and other help.
Once past the early crises of withdrawal and acute medical problems, the rocky early weeks and months of their lives give way to new challenges and problems. Some, now in elementary school, are on the honor roll; others must go to special schools for the developmentally disabled. The children who had seizures and cried incessantly as infants now, as they start school, must overcome short attention spans and learning disabilities.
Some had gastrointestinal problems that made it hard to hold food down; others, as they grew, had such voracious appetites that food had to be carefully limited.
One baby girl, born prematurely at 1 1/2 pounds and kept on life support systems for her first months, arrived at Dangerfield’s when she was about 3 months old. Now 17 months, she took her first steps last week. Dangerfield said babies exposed to drugs prenatally most often learn to walk later than other children, at anywhere from 18 months to 2 years.
Another girl of 4 came to Dangerfield’s when she was 3, after county authorities reclaimed her from adoptive parents who apparently abused her. She remains withdrawn, unable to talk or smile.
But most of the children progress much more normally. One girl, now 8, has been on the honor roll for two years.
One of the first four drug-exposed babies whom Dangerfield received in 1986, when she began, is still with her. Two others have been adopted, and the fourth is living with her grandmother.
With the intervention of Dangerfield and others who work with these babies has come more knowledge about how to deal with their special needs.
When the crack epidemic was new and not much was known about how to treat these babies, physicians recommended that they be sedated with phenobarbital, a potentially addictive drug itself. But no more.
“We do more cuddling now. You take them and mom them, wrap them in blankets real tight and rock them,” said Dangerfield.
At her intimidating best, Dangerfield badgers toy companies for cut-rate prices on play equipment and pleads with manufacturers for deals on children’s clothes. She has also honed her skills in dealing with the many layers and levels of government officials.
As a registered nurse in the pediatrics unit at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, Dangerfield at first was reluctant to try being a foster parent. She was married (her husband, Florizel, has since died), had a daughter and a career.
“One of the social workers said, ‘Elouise, you really would be a good foster mother.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be crazy. There is no way I would do this,’ ” she recalled.
She decided to give it a try anyway, thinking that if it didn’t work out, she could always return the children to the county.
But it didn’t work that way.
“I was naive enough then to believe you could keep them two or three months,” she said. “But with children, you can’t do that.” She figures she and her staff have cared for as many as 50 children over the last seven years.
“They kind of began taking over my life,” she said.