NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The number of babies born to mothers on drugs has skyrocketed in Louisiana. In part three of our special report, Kids in Crisis, we investigate what the Department of Children and Family Services is doing about it and how years of state budget cuts could be leaving those infants at risk.
The medical director of the NICU at Children's Hospital sees it far too often - innocent victims of a mother hooked on drugs.
"They'll start to show signs of withdrawal, they'll be very irritable, hard to console, they have a lot of difficulty feeding. They can have some breathing difficulties, they can also potentially even have seizures. It can be life-threatening," said Children's Hospital NICU Medical Director Dr. Brian Barkemeyer.
Despite that disturbing outcome of opioid addiction, Dr. Barkemeyer sees more and more of those newborns.
"In the past 10 years, the problem has escalated tremendously, not just in Louisiana but across the country," he said.
When an infant tests positive at birth, doctors like Barkemeyer are required by law to report it to the Department of Children and Family Services. The number of those cases in Louisiana is staggering. In 2008, DCFS says about 570 newborns had drugs or alcohol in their systems. By 2015, that number climbed to more than 1,500. And already this year, there have been nearly 1,700 cases.
The DCFS Regional Administrator for the New Orleans region says the majority of cases in our area involve newborns exposed to prescription drugs, heroin or marijuana.
"Drug-affected newborns, often that's not the only thing that's in the home. There could be domestic violence, mental health problems, they're not taking their medication and they're prone to have psychotic behavior," said Denise Evans who is the DCFS regional administrator.
Evans says once DCFS is notified that a newborn has been exposed, they must investigate and decide whether that child and any siblings will be safe in the home.
"We look at the entire family, we look at the environment that they are living in and the day-to-day basis, we look at their functioning, we look at the adult functioning, what are these parents doing day-to-day, what's their daily routine, how are they caring for their children," said Evans.
As you might imagine, Evans says that's not an easy job - especially these days when you consider DCFS is still reeling from years of budget cuts, staff reductions and now overwhelming case loads.
A FOX 8 investigation revealed when Gov. Bobby Jindal took office, the department had a $1.2 billion budget and a staff of 5,000. But by the time Jindal left office, his administration had cut the DCFS budget to $681 million and the staff to 3,300.
"We're doing things quicker. It may not be as comprehensive as we'd like, but if you've got that overwhelming amount and you have limited time, you know, that's going to affect these families and I get concerned we miss something that's very relevant, maybe not talk to those we should've because we're rushing," Evans said.
She says that could leave children at risk.
"If we're not fully funded, the bottom line is that we can't - we're going to be challenged in making sure children are safe, you can only do so much with a little and it's going to get worse," said Evans.
And Barkemeyer says budget cuts can make helping substance-exposed newborns even more complicated.
"Because a lot of the moms involved don't always have the good social support system themselves, so, by law we're obligated to report these situations to the DCFS and we rely on their assistance to look into what's necessary to be done for the babies. In some cases those resources are pretty obvious and readily available, and in some cases the resources are harder to find," said Barkemeyer.
Barkemeyer says that problem also comes at a great cost not only for the babies, who can face life-threatening illness and developmental problems, but also to our state. He says medical care for many of the infants is paid through Medicaid, and the cost of hospitalization for just two to three weeks can easily approach $100,000.