Special Reports

Born Addicted: State of Texas, El Paso not tracking overall births of babies with NAS


EL PASO, Texas - The growing crisis of opioid abuse in the United States isn't just affecting those who are using drugs.

More and more babies are being born addicted.

While the crisis is not as dire in El Paso as it is in other parts of the nation, state and local data shows that the numbers of children being born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS, has climbed in the past decade.

El Paso mother Melissa Rangel's adopted daughter Lexie was born with NAS. She told ABC-7 what she learned about Lexie's first hours in the world.

"The nurses at the hospital recognized that she was displaying withdrawal symptoms," Melissa said. "They actually had to give her drugs to help her withdraw, to help her eat, because she was that irritable."

Lexie, who is weeks away from her fourth birthday, was born dependent on heroin, cocaine and benzodiazepines. 

"She spent 2 months in the NICU withdrawing from heroin," Melissa said.

"If the nurses didn't recognize that she was withdrawing she could have been sent home," she added. "I believe that strongly that she might not be alive right now if she had been sent home with her mother, who was still using heroin."

ABC-7 learned that the diagnosis of NAS is not being tracked as closely as the diagnosis of illnesses or viruses by the state or local health agencies.

When asked if it has data of NAS births in El Paso County, the City of El Paso Department of Public Health told ABC-7 it is not a "notifiable" condition. "We follow on infectious diseases," the lead epidemiologist wrote ABC-7 in an email.

The state does not have a report on the overall number of babies born addicted to drugs, either.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission only tracks the number of babies born to families who receive Medicaid who are born with NAS. Data shows that since 2009, the number of Medicaid cases has grown from 19 and peaked at 42 in 2012. The incomplete data that was provided to ABC-7 shows that 30 cases of NAS among Medicaid users were diagnosed in 2015. Officials with HHS said the data for 2015 won't be finalized until a later date.

Of the city's hospitals, El Paso Children's Hospital has the most diagnosed cases. Since opening its doors in Feb. 2012, 117 drug-dependent babies were born in its hospital. The peak year was in 2016 with 25. Since Oct. 2016, 19 babies with NAS have been born at EPCH.

EPCH social worker Kathy Giovas told ABC-7 that she thinks an increase of awareness of the symptoms of drug withdrawal in infants is leading to a higher diagnosis. She also said it's not fully known what permanent effect opioids will have on developing bodies and minds.

"We're able to do early intervention with these children such as referring them to Early Childhood Intervention, maybe a private agency for physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech (therapy)," Giovas said.

Families are referred to the drug rehabilitation clinics Aliviane, Trinity, El Paso Behavioral Health, and Emergence Health Network, said Giovas. She also said Child Protective Services (CPS) provides therapy and parenting classes. Along with being referred to the Early Childhood Intervention Program (ECI), Giovas said children are also being treated at the Texas Tech High Risk Clinic, MedCares Clinic, and private home health agencies for physical, occupational and speech therapy. 

Once a child is diagnosed as being drug-dependent, Giovas said CPS removes the children from the home.

"A lot of times they do have family members that are able to step in and have temporary guardianship of them while the (parents) go to rehab."

But the removal isn't always permanent.

CPS declined to comment for this story, instead referring ABC-7 to 65th District Court Judge Yahara Lisa Gutierrez, who focuses on family cases.

"I feel that every parent deserves the chance to rehabilitate and to become the best parent that they can be," Gutierrez told ABC-7, adding that the law mandates that everything be done to keep the family together.

"They deserve that chance. If they blow that chance, then that child needs to be put in a safe environment," she said.

That's how Lexie ended up with Melissa and her husband, who is related to Lexie's biological mother. The couple, who had their own daughter less than two years prior, fostered and eventually adopted Lexie two weeks before her first birthday. 

Melissa told ABC-7 that they witness firsthand how the drug addiction affected Lexie to this day.

"I think she handles stress differently," she said, watching her daughters play with baby dolls and strollers in a corner of the home dedicated to their toys. "She gets very worked up and she doesn't know how to handle it or how to calm herself or self-soothe at all. ... So, I have to comfort her (and) let her know that she's safe. She's OK. Nothing bad is going to happen to her. She never got that reassurance when she was a baby."

Melissa thinks time is helping Lexie's progress.

"I think that she used to have some nightmares, some night terrors," she said. "Those memories of birth and those memories of that pain are fading with time. I hope."

When asked about what else makes her believe that Lexie is getting better, Melissa's face lights up.

"When she tells me she loves me, it's --You can tell she feels it and it overwhelms me because I love her so much," she said, her eyes brimming with tears.

She hopes that's enough to erase a horrible beginning and shape a better future. 

Melissa also had an idea on how to curb the increasing number of babies born addicted. Hear her solution and join the debate on our Facebook page.