WHEN Julie Evans became pregnant with her second child last February, she was using $400 to $500 worth of cocaine and synthetic speed a week. But as soon as her pregnancy was confirmed, Ms. Evans made a life-changing, perhaps even lifesaving, decision: She would kick her eight-year drug habit for the sake of her unborn child. ``I figured it's not the baby's fault I was on drugs,'' recalls Evans, a soft-spoken 22-year-old with long brown hair and a shy smile.
A hospital in the Texas city where the young woman was living referred her to a local Christian rehabilitation center. Later, after moving back to her hometown, St. Petersburg, she joined a program for pregnant addicts and succeeded in staying off drugs. (Drug offenders overwhelm Florida prisons, Page 3.)
Her valiant efforts paid off. Last month Evans gave birth to a healthy baby, Michael, who was ``born clean,'' with no trace of addiction and no physical problems resulting from his mother's earlier drug dependency.
``I'm very thankful,'' says Evans, cradling her two-week-old son during an interview.
But Julie Evans's success story remains the exception. Increasingly, the tiniest and most helpless casualties of the country's drug trade are infants. Medical evidence shows that cocaine can have serious detrimental effects on an unborn baby, resulting in possible brain damage, temporary vision loss and hearing loss, and learning disabilities.
Nationwide, a recent survey of 36 urban and suburban hospitals found that up to 12 percent of women had used illegal drugs during pregnancy. Here in Pinellas County - hardly one of the country's worst drug centers - the health department is treating nearly 500 infants born addicted to cocaine. And the number of ``coke babies'' in St. Petersburg's child protective service system has been nearly doubling every month under a newly instituted state reporting system, with 12 new cases in August, 21 in September, and 40 in October.
Still, Evans's experience illustrates the possibilities for rehabilitation when an addicted mother is motivated to change her life and receives steady encouragement and support from others.
For Evans, that support has come largely from staff members at a private, nonprofit organization, Operation PAR (Parental Awareness and Responsibility). Last June the group opened its doors to a three-year federal demonstration project, Children of Substance Abusers (COSA), funded by the Office of Substance Abuse Prevention. It is one of the first programs in the nation to treat addiction as a family problem involving small children.
``For many years, funding has been targeted to abusers,'' says Harvey Landress, administrative services director of Operation PAR. ``It has really ignored the co-dependent children, and the effects of growing up in a drug-involved family.''
Adds Velma Thornton, COSA's family guidance coordinator, ``You can't deal with the mother in isolation, or the children in isolation. We're even trying to get boyfriends and grandmothers involved.''
That family involvement includes residential care for pregnant addicts, weekly parent-training classes for mothers, and a daily child development program for their infants and preschoolers.
The hub of all this activity is a renovated 50-year-old former motel, its stucco exterior now painted a soft Wedgwood blue and its white tile roof deflecting the bright Florida sun. Inside, cheerfully decorated rooms house a nursery, play areas, offices, and a kitchen where children eat breakfast and lunch. A shaded courtyard doubles as a playground, complete with tricycles, jungle gym, and sandbox.
Although the center is in the heart of the city's minority community, Shirley Coletti, executive director of Operation PAR, emphasizes that the problem cuts across racial and economic boundaries. ``It is not just poor, black mothers getting pregnant and exposing babies to cocaine.''
Shortly after lunch on a cloudless Thursday last month, while three infants and 18 preschoolers - including Julie Evans's four-year-old daughter, Kristin - napped, nearly a dozen young mothers gathered for their weekly meeting with staff members. After viewing a film on the early-warning signs of addiction, they talked about how to be better mothers.
Many drug abusers, Mr. Landress explains, ``can barely take care of their own needs, much less those of a developing infant. There may be food in the refrigerator or clothes in the closet, but they can't mother. Then overlay that with a child who has been born with serious difficulties and is not very lovable. Even for the best of mothers, it's a challenge to deal with a cocaine baby.''
To help these young mothers, staff counselors offer advice on nurturing, discipline, schedules, and nutrition. They also visit mothers and children at home.
Yet staff members recognize that these efforts, however valuable, represent only part of the solution. Of equal importance is prevention. So next spring the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County will launch another innovative program: a media campaign to alert young women - and men - to the dangers of drug abuse during pregnancy.
``While the woman is carrying the baby, the man is carrying drugs,'' explains James Mills, executive director of the Juvenile Welfare Board. ``They both have to understand the implications.''
Instead of relying on a traditional advertising campaign - billboards, radio, and TV announcements - the group hopes to find what Mr. Mills calls ``new and different ways to get a message to where people are hanging out.''
Possibilities include coordinated efforts with owners of taverns, gas stations, pizza parlors, bowling alleys, and fast-food restaurants. Even something as small and simple as stickers on restroom doors could prove effective, he suggests.
Meanwhile, back at COSA's family guidance center, where former addicts like Julie Evans are rebuilding their lives, staff members are encouraged by early successes. The program's first baby, born with syphillis and weighing only 1 pound, 15 ounces, was abandoned a day after birth by its severely crack-addicted mother. But as Mrs. Coletti explains, ``One of our former employees became a foster mother, took that baby, and gave it a lot of love and nurturing.'' The infant was later placed in an adoptive home and today, at 14 months, is doing well.
For young children enrolled in the day-care program, progress often takes the form of less aggressive behavior. And for their mothers, Coletti says, ``Almost every day that they're sober is a success, compared to what their lives were like.''
Still, no one pretends the task is easy.
``I have to pray every day and every night, `Give me strength and innovative ways to reach these people,''' says Ms. Thornton, the coordinator. ``It takes a lot of patience and endurance to wait for them to say, `I'm ready.' I have to ask God to help me hang in there.''
Nor does Julie Evans minimize her own struggle. ``It's still hard, and I've been clean for eight months now.'' But, she adds, ``If it was not for the pregnancy, I feel I'd be dead now. I was in a rut.
``Things are going great with my recovery,'' she adds. ``I need a lot of help, but I have a lot of support. People here tell you their door is always open, and I use it.''
For the future, Evans hopes to enroll in a local junior college, earn a degree, and ``raise my kids like a normal family the best I can. I want to become a responsible adult like I'm supposed to be.''
To other mothers and mothers-to-be struggling to overcome addiction, she offers this advice: ``There are so many good people out there who are willing to help you. Take advantage of it, because the drug pushers are not there to help you.''