Advocates call for justice for drug dependent babies

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - East Tennessee Children's Hospital has received national attention since opening its neonatal abstinence unit in 2011 specially designed to care for babies suffering from drug withdrawal.

The unit was built to hold 16. But since opening, it's been over capacity.

"About 30 percent of our admissions are for NAS. When we opened the 16 bed private room area, we thought this would take care of all of our NAS babies. And that was a year ago, November 7, 2011. And since the day we opened, we haven't had an open bed down here," said nurse Carla Saunders.

"We've begun to address that last year with a lot tougher laws on drug abuse as well as meth use, and we're trying to look at what's the next step. But we literally in Tennessee have an epidemic of prescription drug use and babies being born addicted and it's... we're better than that as a state and we're going looking at every way we can to address that," said Governor Bill Haslam.

And while individuals who abuse drugs can be charged, the mothers who pass dependency to their babies while pregnant aren't.

"In the child abuse statutes they have not included fetus and embryo. So when a mother is ingested drugs and those drugs are going to her baby we're precluded from using that in the child abuse statutes," said assistant district attorney Charme Knight.

But those who have experienced the symptoms first hand, say something must be done to stop the epidemic.

"If a child is born exposed to drugs, then somebody needs to be charged with something. Somebody needs to take responsibility, and what happens is the community takes up the slack," said Tomma Battle.

Battle adopted her daughter Raven just a few days after birth.

'She would sit in the pumpkin seat and just shake, and I'm like, this is not right," said Battle.

After watching her tiny daughter seize for 35 minutes in the emergency room, Battle was spent.

My passion is to try to see that that doesn't happen to as many babies as possible," said Battle.

Nurses at Children's agree the symptoms are heartbreaking to watch.

"It includes things such as vomiting, severe diarrhea, severe stomach cramping, skin burning to their bottoms from the diarrhea, severe jitters, tremors, high pitched and uncontrollable crying and in severe cases it can include seizures. It is very exhausting to take care of these children physically. They're very physically demanding. It's heartbreaking. And the fact that they're coming in higher and higher numbers is frightening to us," said Saunders.

And while advocates call for change, prosecutors say they're trying.

"We have actually drafted legislation here in the Knox County office and submitted that for the conference to take that and pass those laws here. And so far, we've not been successful with that, but we intend to keep trying to rewrite the legislation and trying to get it through where we can do something because drug exposed babies in this community are a problem," said Knight.

As for the nurses, they say the focus should be on the larger problem at hand.

"We all rallied around seatbelts and trying to help prevent deaths and increse health care costs for people not wearing seatbelts, and now it's time to rally around prescription drug abuse," said Saunders.

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