Legis. William Spencer listens in on a panel of medical...

Legis. William Spencer listens in on a panel of medical professionals during the Suffolk County Legislature's Health Committee hearing in Hauppague, on infants born with a dependency on drugs, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015. Credit: Johnny Milano

A panel of drug addiction specialists and pediatricians urged Suffolk lawmakers Thursday to make drug treatment more accessible to addicted mothers as the county grapples with a growing number of newborns with opioids in their system.

Suffolk Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), chairman of the legislature’s health committee, convened a special hearing after a recent Newsday report found the rate of babies born addicted to opioids including heroin and prescription drugs had more than doubled over the past six years.

“It’s an ugly truth that opioid addiction is ravaging the lives of young and old,” Spencer said. The hearing was the first in a series of discussions he plans to hold with the seven-member to draft legislation to address the needs of addicted mothers and children.

State health data shows there were 171 Suffolk infants born with opioids in their system in 2014, a rate of 11.2 per thousand, compared with 93 babies, or a birthrate of 5.42 per thousand, in 2009

There were 53 addicted infants in Nassau last year, a birthrate of 3.73 in 2014, compared with 34 in 2009, for a birthrate of 2.33.

Committee members called for more coordination between drug treatment centers, hospitals and social service agencies to ensure addicted mothers and their children continue to receive medical care after birth, and support services including counseling and safe housing to reduce relapsing and child abuse.

“We send them out to the community with little support,” said Dr. Carolyn Milana, Medical Director of Stony Brook University Hospital’s Nursery. “This is a time that moms without a strong support system will likely relapse.”

Judy Richter, a social worker at Huntington Hospital, recalled a recent case in which an infant died due to drug-related neglect. The parents were high on drugs, and unaware their baby was suffocating in their bed, Richter said.

Dennis Nowack, director of the county’s Child Protective Services agency, which investigates child abuse claims, said CPS workers have seen an increase in the number of child abuse cases involving drug addicted parents. Of about 9,000 child abuse complaints that workers have investigated this year, more than a quarter involved parents who abused drugs, he said.

“It’s putting more strain on the system,” Nowack said, noting that investigators often have to file petitions in Family Court to remove the child from their parent.

Suffolk Health Commissioner James Tomarken said the health department is working to create a telephone hotline to connect addicts with drug treatment programs. He said he hoped that would result in a “central source” of help for addicts seeking help. He did say when the program will start.

Johnny Milano

Johnny Milano Credit: Johnny Milano

Said Spencer: “We’re not going to solve this issue today, but we’ve made a significant step in the right direction.”

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