‘It’s heartbreaking’ – Helping Babies Born Addicted

SCRANTON, Pa. -- The heroin and opioid epidemic is being called the worst public health crisis in Pennsylvania.

Governor Tom Wolf has declared a disaster emergency leading to changes that could save the tiniest victims of the crisis.

Every day, more than 115 Americans die after overdosing on opioids: pain pills, heroin, and fentanyl.

The crisis has hit home hard, and its victims come in all ages: including newborns.

"It's heartbreaking," said Dr. Mark Molnar. "You want to do everything you can to prevent this and to keep these babies and newborns to have the best life and lifestyle they can have, but it's not a single entity that you can flip a switch to fix this."

Every 25 minutes, a baby is born suffering from opiate withdrawal.

"You have diarrhea, high-pitched cries. You have tremors. These are all signs that the baby is going through withdrawal symptoms."

It's called neonatal abstinence syndrome. It's a whole new generation of addicts.

"It becomes very important to see the whole picture. We cannot see the whole picture. Somebody else has to do this for us. Somebody else has to collect this data and say, 'This is the magnitude of the problem. This is what we're dealing with,'" said Dr. Luis De La Fuente.

At Commonwealth Health Moses Taylor Hospital in Scranton, doctors are tracking babies born addicted. It's part of an order from Governor Wolf.

The goal: more research, more funding for care and prevention, and hopefully, fewer babies born addicted.

"It was a dirty little secret that you didn't want to talk about. Well, somebody is taking a couple Percocets or somebody is doing whatever. For the longest time you just looked the other way and didn't deal with it. Now, this really brings it to light, but again, I look at what the governor is doing as a data collection mindset. This is the first step in the process," Dr. Molnar said. "This is a process that is really just starting, and again, just like treating any disease, it's a life-long battle."

These doctors say many addicted mothers are ashamed and guilt-ridden over the pain they've caused their babies.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has been asked to decide if drug abuse during pregnancy can be punished as child abuse under state law.

Researchers say babies born addicted are more likely to be underweight, have respiratory problems, and have developmental issues.

Some go home with their mothers, but others are put into foster care.

"I will tell you firsthand that these children are worth everything we can give to them and there are so many resources and community partnerships and just love that comes around that you know I don't regret it. I don't regret it one bit," Stephanie Anuszewski said.

Stephanie Anuszewski of Jermyn is a mother of 11: three stepchildren, four biological children, and four adopted out of foster care.

Some of those adopted kids were born addicted.

There may be some behavioral and developmental issues, even issues with their teeth because of exposure to drugs.

"You would never regret it, absolutely never regret it. It's the best choice, moments that we ever had. It's hard. It's hard."

Anuszewski says tracking babies who are born addicted is a step in the right direction, but more has to be done for the children already in the system.

"If we can help these children before they are school age, whether we help these families or through adoption, it gives a higher success rate."

The governor's emergency declaration is due to expire on April 10, which could mean an end to reporting babies born addicted, but state health officials say they are working to make that requirement a permanent change and health officials in Scranton say they will keep doing it.