Boarder Babies

FOR most newborns, a hospital nursery serves as only a temporary residence. But for thousands of other infants each year, a neonatal nursery becomes their only home. These are ``boarder babies,'' the offspring of troubled mothers who slip out of the hospital alone, leaving infants to be cared for by nurses and leaving the city to foot the bill.

A draft report issued this month by the United States Department of Health and Human Services counted 22,000 abandoned babies languishing in the nation's hospitals in 1991. Even those figures, researchers caution, probably underestimate the problem. Seventy percent of the infants were clustered in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. More than three-quarters were diagnosed as drug-exposed at birth.

These babies exist in a legal limbo, healthy enough to go home but with no home to go to. Most eventually move to group homes, adding to the nearly half-million children now in foster care.

The circumstances - drugs, poverty, homelessness, incarceration, AIDS - that lead despairing new mothers to think they cannot cope defy easy solutions. Yet experts insist that many abandonments are preventable. They urge drug treatment for pregnant addicts. They also seek better prenatal counseling for mothers at risk and more programs to teach parenting skills. With access to well-coordinated social services, counselors say, these women can be rehabilitated. Equally urgent is the need for safe and affordable housing. Waiting lists for subsidized housing are now years long in many cities.

Implementing these provisions will require money. But consider the estimated $125 million that hospitals - many of them urban public hospitals already facing serious budget problems - currently spend each year to care for abandoned infants. Even that cost pales next to the emotional price that experts say is paid by tiny boarders deprived of parental love and of the daily sights, sounds, and routines of family life. Some have never even felt the warmth of the sun.

A revolving door of nurses and volunteers, however devoted, does not constitute a family. The sympathy Americans have shown for orphaned babies in Romania and other poor countries now needs to extend to helping abandoned infants and impoverished mothers much closer to home.

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