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Growing number of Wisconsin babies born addicted to opiates

Posted: 7:56 AM, May 04, 2016
Updated: 2018-10-02 16:21:05-04
An entirely new generation of heroin and prescription drug addicts in Wisconsin - the number of babies born addicted to opiates in our state is growing so much it's now straining the foster care system.
 
There simply aren't enough foster parents to help heal Wisconsin’s opiate problem. They're not exactly the kind of people you'd expect to know a lot about drugs.
 
“It's so popular right now, especially the heroin,” Marijean Wilsnack said.
 
But Marijean and Walter Wilsnack have picked up a lot since they became foster parents five years ago.
 
“Anything before this was not really important,” Walter said.
 
Especially after they met Ben.
 
“Through time we just totally fell in love with him,” Walter said.
 
Ben was born addicted to opiates. After living with the Wilsnack's for two years, they were just about to adopt him.
 
“I saw that blue-gray face and he had stopped breathing and I call 911,” Walter said.
 
He never woke up from his nap on Christmas Day. Marijean says the doctors think he had the flu, and because his brain was already weak from being born an addict, he couldn't handle it.
 
“It's just kind of funny the night before. I told him tomorrow is Jesus' birthday, so in one respect, he got to be Jesus' Christmas present,” Walter said.
 
There are 500 babies like Ben born every year in Wisconsin. From 2009 through 2014, the number of opiate addicted babies in our state grew by 125 percent. 
 
So many that St. Joe's Hospital in Milwaukee has a special room for those babies where it's darker and quieter.
 
Dr. Stephen Ragatz is the medical director for the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at St. Joe’s Hospital.
 
“They struggle," said Ragatz. "They have loose stools. What we're concerned about now is will this withdrawal process mess up the developing brain."
 
In Ozaukee County,  Marian Ballos and her staff at the child welfare office are just trying to keep up.
 
“I don't know if you've ever seen a baby going through withdrawal, but it is horrific,” said Ballos. “All my cases right now and I have 178 cases open. Every single one of them are drug related, opiate or heroin cases, every single one."
 
The amount of kids in foster care in Wisconsin is growing.  We saw our first increase in 2013 after six years of decline. And Ballos will tell you there simply aren't enough foster parents to handle all the kids tied in some way to opiate addiction.
 
 “Sometimes I have to tell the foster parent, break out the mattresses put them on the floor because we have no room,” Ballos said.
 
It's the need that keeps Marijean and Walter going.
 
“We with Ben couldn't realize how much we could love this child. It was quite surprising,” Walter said.
 
Even after losing Ben, they're now trying to adopt the newest baby they're fostering.
 
“When a drug addicted family is affected you've got pieces to pick up and you've got to start putting them back together,” Marijean said.
 
The severity of the withdrawal for these babies varies from case to case and so does their recovery time.
It really depends on their mothers and how much they were using and how often.