Like most mothers of a toddler, when Linda West plays with her adopted daughter Autumn she models behavior, such as how to catch a ball, mixing instruction with congratulatory hugs and praise.
But there is nothing ordinary about their relationship. Three years ago, the four-month old baby, a victim of her birth mother’s methamphetamine use, became a ward of the state after her parents tried to sell their tiny, 2.5-pound infant in a parking lot.
Thanks to the nonprofit Angels In Waiting, Autumn and other “medically fragile” foster children receive a chance to overcome physical and developmental obstacles in an unusual, government-approved placement arrangement. At-risk babies go home to the comforting and knowledgeable arms of licensed vocational or registered nurses like West, who are registered foster care providers and paid for their care-giving through Medicaid.
Just as a methamphetamine epidemic among young women is creating an ever-increasing number of fragile newborns in need of care, donations to Angels dropped by half during the recession, clipping West’s efforts to recruit other nurse care-givers.
Briefly last year, in-home infant nursing care and West’s Angels were in the public eye when they volunteered to help “Octomom” Nadya Suleman, then living in Whittier, take care of her eight premature newborns.
Some of the single mother’s six other children seemed to exhibit developmental problems, according to West, who hoped AIW nurses could head off delays in the octuplets. Within a week, though, AIW departed due to security issues, demands by Suleman’s attorney that nurses sign non-disclosure agreements and West’s own reports filed with authorities alleging child endangerment.
Now, West is trying a different tack with another charity, Laguna Beach-based Nurses for Safer Access, 1968 S. Coast Highway. The storefront, which opens Sept. 7, will offer botanically-based health supplements to be distributed to customers under the supervision of a registered nurse where appropriate.
West sought natural remedies as substitutes for some of the myriad pharmaceuticals with their side effects prescribed for her own medically fragile children. The alternatives provided great results.
Now, West hopes to both raise funds for AIW and promote the use of herbal remedies with Nurses for Safer Access. Her 20-year-old nephew, local resident Blake Chapman, has joined her in launching the nonprofit to distribute herbs, nutritional supplements, vitamins, probiotics, and teas costing from $6 to $100, which are largely unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration, including high potency supplements that are only sold to health care providers.
West and Chapman don’t wish aim to provide safer access to Eastern-style remedies where practicable. “I have no problem integrating Western and Eastern medicine as a nurse,” she said.
Currently, West’s Angels number 45 nurses, mostly in Southern California. They operate independently and have obtained credentials to provide in-home care to medically fragile foster children, an alternative to discharging tiny patients from ICUs to nursing institutions or group homes. So far they have cared for about 110 babies.
According to Terry Lynn Fisher, spokeswoman for Orange County’s Social Services Agency, even though the agency’s goal is to keep children with their birth parents whenever possible, they always have a need for more foster parents qualified and willing to care for medically fragile and disabled children.
Care by a single individual rather than a rotating staff fulfills a child’s need to bond, said consultant Jackie Peebles, also of Lake Arrowhead, an early intervention specialist, who established Special Discoveries Educational Services, Inc. in 2002. Infants deprived of nurturing may fail to thrive and face developmental challenges, she said.
For autistic children and drug-exposed babies, early and meaningful intervention will decrease negative behavior and increase developmental milestones, said Peebles, who works with AIW nurses. “We are able to mitigate a lot of the severe problems that these children have.”
Working in hospitals in San Bernardino County where meth addiction has soared, West and other nurses were frustrated that their work schedules didn’t allow time to hold and comfort the compromised infants. The mantra, “if only I could take you home…” was often wistfully uttered. Then West thought, why not? Why can’t we take them home?
Determined to find a solution, she unearthed a Medicaid program called “In Home Operations” created in 1967 so that infants would not be institutionalized. West figured out the process that allows licensed nurses to become credentialed as foster-care providers for medically fragile charges and bill Medi-Cal for their nursing. She founded Angels In Waiting in 2005 to promote the concept.
Through this process, West took Autumn into her home, and has since adopted her.
Ninety percent of AIW-recruited nurses adopt, partly because they become so attached to their charges and sometimes in part because they may have reservations about the quality of care they’ll receive in other homes, West said. Foster parents for medically fragile children receive a monthly stipend of $1,200 from California Children’s Services.
“Once they call you ‘mommy,’ it’s all over,” said West, who lives in Lake Arrowhead, with Autumn and her new brother Sammy, now 8, another meth micro preemie who West adopted at 22 months.
Nurses for Safer Access will initially be open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week and can be contacted at 949 715-7757.