In February, Daniel Fabela-Pinon was born addicted to heroin in a Tacoma, Washington, hospital. His mother, Edna Pinon-Garcia, had gotten high just hours before giving birth. In fact, she had been using heroin throughout her whole pregnancy.
When Pinon-Garcia found out that she was pregnant, she sought medical help to get off heroin and was told by her doctors that if she stopped using abruptly, the baby might die. She signed up for methadone treatment, but relapsed and was so ashamed of herself that she didn’t continue with prenatal care.
"I knew all these devastating things were going to happen to my first child—my one and only son," she told a Washington NBC News affiliate. "But I couldn't stop."
When you think of heroin addicts, you certainly don’t think of newborns, but unfortunately they are the youngest victims of the heroin epidemic affecting the entire nation. And in King County, where Daniel was born, 132 people overdosed on heroin and died last year, according to a county task force report. As many as 150 people in King County alone have been on waitlists in the last year to enter treatment facilities.
According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control released in August, the number of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome—postnatal drug withdrawal syndrome—increased by 300 percent from 1999 to 2013.
It’s easy to vilify mothers who use drugs while pregnant, but let’s keep in mind that the shame attached to that vilification actually puts their babies in more danger. If a mother is too ashamed to admit to her drug use and the hospital does not diagnose the child’s withdrawal syndrome, the child may end up with long-term health consequences.
Thankfully, in Daniel’s case, there's a happy ending. Although he tested positive for opiates in the hospital and was given special care after birth, within weeks, he was doing well. He’s now a healthy and thriving 8-month-old.
As for Daniel’s mother, she lost custody of him at birth, but continued to use heroin until she collapsed one day and realized that if she didn’t get treatment she would die.
"I feel disgusted with myself honestly. Just disgusted," she told King 5 News. "Like, what kind of a mother chooses drugs over her child?"
She was able to enroll in a six-month residential program paid by Medicaid for mothers addicted to drugs at Evergreen Recovery Centers in Everett, Washington.
In July, she was given custody of Daniel. Now, being totally sober for the first time since she gave birth, she’s getting to know her firstborn, while she awaits the birth of her second child. She hopes to give her second child the newborn bonding experience she was unable to provide to Daniel.
Edna Pinon-Garcia’s story of drug abuse and motherhood may be shocking, but it’s one of many and is not to be ignored if we are to help drug-addicted babies coming into this world. Even if it’s easy to judge the drug abuse of adults and expect them to find their own way out of addiction, we shouldn't turn our back on the most helpless among us. Awareness is key to providing newborns suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome with the treatment they need.