News

Adoption agencies connect drug-exposed children with new families

Written by Rita Giordano/Philadelphia Inquirer | Jul 8, 2018 3:33 PM
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Newsrooms across the commonwealth have spent years documenting the opioid crisis in their own communities. But now, in the special project State of Emergency: Searching for Solutions to Pennsylvania's Opioids Crisis, we are marshalling resources to spotlight what Pennsylvanians are doing to try to reverse the soaring number of overdose deaths.

WITF is releasing more than 60 stories, videos and photos throughout July. This week, you will find stories about initial response and how addition affects families.

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Jodi (left) and Brian Higgins sit with their son Patrick in their Newtown, Pa. living room on Friday afternoon, April 27, 2018. Patrick was adopted, his birth mother used opioids during her pregnancy. (Sydney Schaefer/Philadelphia Inquirer)

(Newtown) -- Deep down, first-time parent Brian Higgins had to admit he was hoping for a boy.

But during an ultrasound appointment in spring 2016, the Newtown father-to-be and wife Jodi wanted nothing more than a verdict of good health. Suddenly, a fetal image appeared on the monitor screen. Sounds of a strong heartbeat filled the room.

Brian started to cry. Jodi teared up, too. Ears, eyes, a nose -- the technician ticked off the good news. And then something else.

"It looks like you're going to get your boy, Brian!" the mother quipped.

But that wasn't Jodi speaking.

Rather, it was the birth mother of the baby the couple would name Patrick.

The Philadelphia woman was under medical care, managing her opioid addiction during her pregnancy with methadone, because sudden withdrawal can endanger a developing fetus. But she was taking one more step to protect the child. She was allowing her baby to be adopted by a family that could offer him the kind of life and stability that she could not.

Theirs is a little-told but increasingly common story in an opioid epidemic that continues in the Philadelphia region and across the country.

"It's true nationally, not just in Philadelphia, that of the children being placed for private adoptions, more of them had previously experienced substance exposure, including exposure to opioids, or were born with an addiction to opioids," said Ryan Hanlon, vice president of the National Council for Adoptions.

Adoptions From the Heart, a Wynnewood-based, private adoption agency, saw its rate of opioid-involved birth mothers rise from 33 percent in 2016 to 52 percent in 2017. Likewise, the Open Arms Adoption Network, a program of the Jewish Children and Family Services of Greater Philadelphia headquartered in Elkins Park, reported a 50 percent increase in babies exposed to opioids in the womb.

But these Montgomery County-based adoption agencies also offer hope: Children are placed in secure homes with loving parents, many of whom have tried to adopt for years.  Because most of the agencies allow varying degrees of open adoptions, the birth mothers may retain some contact with their children. They can also get assistance, referrals even scholarships and the knowledge they are helping their children.

For Candy Barone, 30, placing her child for adoption was "the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life," she said.

The Delaware woman's daughter Presley, now 2, was adopted by a Pennsylvania couple. "I did it because I loved her so much that I wanted her to have a better life than I could give her," said Barone, soon to have her second visit with Presley.

For adoptive parents of babies born opioid dependent, the first few weeks are agonizing. Most of the babies require an extended stay in neonatal intensive care as they tremble and cry their way through opioid withdrawal.

Then come the months and years of wondering what effects opioids will have on their babies.

The research is inconsistent, but some experts say the children largely seem spared lasting developmental delays.

Patrick Higgins, now 21 months old, was born two months early. He gets support through Early Intervention, a state-funded program that provides services to young children at risk for learning or developmental delays. Jodi and Brian monitor his milestones more carefully than they would another child. But they do it all again in a heartbeat.

Said Brian, 54: "He's been a real gift."

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