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Birthrate of babies addicted to drugs in Suffolk, Nassau soars

Morning Star I's Carla Carlyon greets a child

Morning Star I's Carla Carlyon greets a child in Dix Hills. The nonprofit provides counseling and support for mothers battling drug and alcohol addiction. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

The birthrate for babies born addicted to opioids, including heroin and prescription painkillers, has more than doubled in Suffolk County over the past six years, outpacing increases in Nassau and other suburban counties in the region, according to state health data.

Spurred by increasing heroin abuse among adults, the rate of infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, which occurs when a baby has been exposed to drugs in the womb, rose by 105 percent in Suffolk from 2009 to 2014, 60 percent in Nassau and 58 percent statewide.

A Newsday analysis of state Department of Health data from 2009 to 2014 shows:

  • Suffolk ranked second in the state the number of infants born with drugs in their system in 2014, the last full year for which data is available. There were 171 Suffolk infants born with opioids in their system in 2014 — 10 percent of addicted babies born statewide — compared with 93 in 2009.
  • Nassau ranked ninth in the state with 53 such infants in 2014, compared with 34 in 2009. Erie County ranked first last year with 194 addicted babies. There were 1,656 drug-addicted babies born statewide in 2014 — 547 more than in 2009.
  • In Suffolk, the birthrate for addicted babies increased from 5.42 per 1,000 births in 2009 to 11.2 in 2014. In Nassau, the rate rose from 2.33 to 3.73, and the statewide rate increased from 4.46 to 7.05 in the period. Suffolk ranked 34th among the state’s 62 counties in terms of the birthrate for addicted babies last year, and Nassau was 52nd. Niagara County had the highest rate in the state with 37.9 addicted newborns per 1,000 births last year.
  • Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and Westchester County have experienced decreases in the rate of addicted newborns over the past six years. Staten Island reported a 34 percent jump, and Brooklyn saw a 20 percent increase.

Obstetricians and drug-treatment specialists say the rising numbers of addicted babies reflects the increase in drug abuse among women who are taking advantage of the relatively low cost and ease of access to heroin compared with prescription painkillers. As pills such as OxyContin and Vicodin have become harder to obtain because of increased regulation, more addicts are turning to heroin, experts say.

Officials at treatment clinics and health centers on Long Island say they are seeing more addicted mothers seeking assistance. Several noted that while they may have seen one addicted mother a year in the past, now they’re seeing up to five cases a week.

At Stony Brook University Hospital, an internal study found a 48.1 percent increase in babies born with drugs in their systems from 2008 to 2012.

“It’s been pretty dramatic,” said Dr. Carolyn Milana, medical director of the hospital’s nursery. “I’ve been practicing at this hospital for more than 10 years, and typically saw one [addicted infant]every couple of weeks. Now, sometimes we’ve had up to five at a time in one week.”

Milana added that “we’re also seeing an increase in the number of women participating in recovery programs, which means they’re at least getting the help and support they need.”

Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director at the Family and Children’s Association, a Mineola based nonprofit with services including parent coaching, called the increase in Suffolk “significant.”

The numbers highlight “the multigenerational aspect to the opiate crisis,” Reynolds said. “Young people who are born to addicted parents . . . are at increased risk of drug addiction. Hopefully, it’s not a situation where we get through this period of time, only to find ourselves back at square one when these kids grow up.”

Advocates who work with addicted mothers in Suffolk say the rising number of mothers in need of treatment shows little sign of waning, and that must be combated with more treatment programs to battle the addiction and parenting-support programs to minimize the chance of mothers relapsing when faced with the pressures of motherhood.

Of the 20 rooms at Morning Star I, a Dix Hills facility that provides housing and counseling for addicted mothers, 15 are typically occupied by mothers battling heroin and opioid addictions, said Carla Carlyon, a parenting specialist there. The facility is operated by the Glen Cove nonprofit SCO Family of Services.

Rebecca, a Morning Star client who is in her 30s, cradled her 1-year-old daughter in her arms one day last summer as the little girl laughed and tried to wriggle free.

The mother, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that only her first name be used, said that hours after giving birth to her daughter, she went to the bathroom and shot up with heroin without her nurses knowing.

“She was born on methadone,” Rebecca said, referring to the prescription drug used to wean drug users from their addiction.

“I went to detox twice when I was pregnant with her,” she said. “I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t do it . . . Even when she was born, I always justified doing heroin. She’d be in the car seat with receiving blankets propped up to her chest, feeding from the bottle on her blanket, while I was on the edge of the tub shooting heroin. But as long as she was fed, her diaper was clean and she was wearing a big bow in her hair, I thought she was OK.”

Suffolk Child Protective Services workers placed the baby in foster care, and Rebecca entered court-mandated drug rehabilitation, including a stint at Morning Star. She has since been clean and regained custody of the girl.

Her daughter, who was born weighing 4 pounds, 7 ounces, has grown into an energetic girl who doctors have said is growing on par with other children her age.

Rebecca said that while drug-abusing mothers are sometimes vilified, they should be viewed as women fighting a disease.

“Addiction is a sickness, it’s a disease,” Rebecca said. “It takes your soul and you don’t even know it. She didn’t ask to be born this way, but she’s my motivation to stay clean. I never want to lose her again.”

Suffolk health department spokeswoman Grace Kelly McGovern said that in response to the growing numbers of addicted newborns, the county has increased efforts to help addicted pregnant women find medical treatment before and after giving birth. In some cases, health department nurses conduct home visits once the child is born, McGovern said.

“The department appreciates the importance of prevention and treatment of addiction for all residents and particularly the pregnant women and their babies,” McGovern said in an email.

McGovern said she could offer no reasons for Suffolk’s comparatively high numbers of addicted newborns. But she said county health officials have concerns about the “validity” of the state’s data because other counties showed fluctuations from year to year, and New York City’s statistics were “quite low.” State Health Department officials said they collect their data from discharge records that hospitals must file with the state.

Steven Chassman, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, a nonprofit with offices in Mineola and Holbrook that connects addicts to treatment programs, said more needs to be done to address the underlying issues driving young women to addiction.

“There’s a whole generation of young women presenting different issues than men, from self-esteem issues to self-worth issues to sexual exploitation, that we must reach,” Chassman said.

Dr. Stephen Patrick, assistant professor of pediatrics and health policy at Vanderbilt University, said national data shows that “opioid use in general is a bit more prevalent” in suburban and rural areas.

Patrick and other researchers published a study in 2012 that found nationally there was one infant a minute born with opioids in his or her system but noted the need for more studies tracking the physical impact on such infants.

“There is a really limited amount of data that follows infants long term,” he said.

In Nassau, the number of pregnant addicts seeking treatment at the county’s methadone clinic increased from 17 in 2013 to 23 last year, according to the county’s Office of Mental Health, Chemical Dependency and Developmental Disabilities Services.

The increase in the number of addicted babies over the past six years has prompted a “full-court press” to fast-track access to social-service programs for addicted women, said James Dolan, director of the office.

Nassau’s methadone clinic refers addicted mothers to Nassau University Medical Center for neonatal care. Once the child is born, clinic caseworkers and CPS workers conduct home visits to monitor the mother and child, said Jayne Greene, opioid program coordinator for the clinic.

“For some of the mothers the birth of a child is a life-changing experience which assists them in their recovery plan,” Greene said. “Unfortunately, other mothers relapse.”

Impact of heroin and opioids on infants

Nassau and Suffolk have both experienced increases in the number of infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, which occurs when a baby is exposed to drugs in the womb. While studies on the long-term impacts of the syndrome are limited, doctors and researchers say some of the immediate impacts include:

  • Excessive crying
  • Irritability
  • Tremors
  • Breathing problems
  • Feeding difficulties
  • Seizures
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Longer hospital stays — nationwide, addicted newborns stayed in the hospital an average of 16.9 days in 2012, compared to 2.1 days for other newborns, according to the most recent national health data available.
  • Greater need for specialized medical care — drug-addicted infants in New York are nearly 2.5 times as likely to be readmitted to the hospital in the first month after being discharged compared with full-term infants born without complications, according to a Vanderbilt University study published last month.

Sources: Vanderbilt University School of Medicine; National Institute on Drug Abuse