Heroin kids: Doctors help children impacted by the heroin epidemic

CINCINNATI (WKRC) - The heroin epidemic creates a lot of headlines; people overdosing in restaurants, hospitals, or even in cars while driving.

But people don't hear much about the children who are often there when their parents overdose, or the babies exposed in the womb by their addicted mothers. Doctors were working to track the long-term effects on the smallest victims of the crisis.

Grayson, a 10-month-old, was getting his check-up at the Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) Clinic at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. His mom, Jillian, has adopted three children who were exposed to drugs in the womb.

Jillian said, "We got to meet him when he was 10-days-old."

They met in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where Grayson was experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

"We knew the times that were worst for him were in the middle of the night. So I would sleep during the day and go hold him during the night," said Jillian. "You could tell he was in a lot of pain."

Doctors and nurses at the NAS clinic were seeing an increase in the number babies who needed the type of follow-up care Grayson got.

Dr. Jenny Mcallister said, "Last year we saw over a thousand clinic visits just for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. 400 of these were new patient visits. That's double over the year before."

Dr. Mcallister said doctors think issues like aggressive behavior and attention problems including ADHD could be linked to Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. But they don't really know how heroin addiction at birth affects children's development long-term because there was very little research in the US.

A new study out of Australia found NAS at birth can lead to poor performance in school. The study looked at children born between 2000 and 2006. It showed third graders with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome tested lower in reading and math than their peers and the deficit was progressive. By seventh grade, children with NAS scored lower than 5th graders who didn't have it.

Dr. Mcallister said, "Our babies born 4 to 5 years ago are just becoming school aged children where these problems are being identified." She continued, "I'm definitely concerned this is going to be a health care issue going forward."

Doctors also have concerns about drugs used to treat heroin addiction. Mother of three Jami got into treatment before the birth of her daughter, Jadalynn. Jami takes Subutex to stay clean. Jadalynn was exposed in the womb, so doctors at the NAS clinic were tracking her development. They don't know the long-term effects of opioid treatments either.

The doctors and nurses can recommend therapy for children who need it, and give important education to their parents. They believe early intervention was crucial, but said a bigger health care commitment was needed.

Dr. Mcallister said, "We need more support for treatment for families in general, not just treating mom or not just treating baby, but treating the entire family. We have to."

That means families need to commit too. Jami credited her parents with helping her get her life back.

Jami said, "I want people to know that it's okay. You can ask for help. Don't be scared to ask for help."

Jillian told Local 12 of Grayson, "Seeing him now is incredible. He's hitting all of his milestones. He's sleeping great. He's eating great."

Jillian hopes Grayson will send a message that it's okay help these babies. And as demand grows for homes like Jillian's, she and her husband were keeping their door open.

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