Barbara Harris on Adopting Drug-Addicted Babies and Why She Started Project Prevention

Filed under: Adoption

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Barbara and Smitty Harris are surrounded by their adopted children. Courtesy of Barbara Harris

Twenty-one years ago, when Destiny Harris was born, she tested positive for crack, PCP and heroin.

At 8 months, she was adopted by Barbara and Smitty Harris, who had served as foster parents to the girl and already had six sons between them. In the next few years, they adopted three more children, two boys and another girl, all from the same birth mother as Destiny.

Barbara Harris became frustrated with a system that allowed drug-addicted mothers to have drug-addicted babies who were put into foster care. So, she started Project Prevention, an organization that pays female drug addicts to go on birth control.

Harris recently spoke to ParentDish about the charity and answers her critics. An edited version of the conversation follows.

ParentDish: How did you come to adopt these children?
Barbara Harris: When I met my husband, he had three sons. I had one (from a previous relationship) and, together, we had two sons. At that point, I realized we were never going to have a daughter, so that's what led me to becoming a foster parent -- I knew I could say I wanted a little girl and get one.

Before becoming a foster parent, I never thought, as a lot of people don't, about the fact that women who are using drugs are having babies. It never entered my mind. So when we got our first little baby, Destiny, in 1989, we learned that her mother had five total children. (Destiny) had four older sisters and we learned that when she was born she tested positive for crack, PCP and heroin. So, that was the first time I thought about women who are using drugs, conceiving children and basically marinating them in drugs until they give birth to them.

PD: And the babies kept coming.
BH: Four months after we got Destiny, we got a phone call saying that the mother had had her sixth baby, a little boy, and did we want him? And we decided to bring him home because I wanted them to be together. And then, the next year, we got a call that she'd had another baby girl and did we want her? And I decided we couldn't say no. And then, the next year, we got a call she'd had her eighth baby, and did we want him? So, we brought him home. That's how we ended up with all four of them and we adopted them and they're one year after the other.

PD: Did she have more kids?
BH: She didn't, because if she would have they'd be living with me because I wouldn't have said no. My husband was very grateful that she stopped, as he said, "Barbara, I'm not buying a school bus."

PD: Did you see your kids go through drug withdrawal?
BH: When I bought Isaiah home, I saw how he suffered. I had to watch him withdraw from drugs and the way he suffered and the way his eyes looked like they were going to bulge out of his head. He couldn't keep food down and he screamed and he wouldn't sleep and, oh, my gosh, I was so upset.

At first, I was angry at the mom, how dare you do this, six babies! But then I started focusing my energy towards the system that allows them to do this. Why do we allow women who are drug addicts or alcoholics who are acting totally irresponsibly to walk into the local hospital every year and drop off a damaged baby and walk away without any consequences?

PD: And, so you decided to take action.
BH: Everyone was complaining, the social workers, the hospitals, the courts. I thought, complaining doesn't change anything. So, I tried to get legislation passed in California, where I was living at the time, which would have made it mandatory that if a woman gives birth to a child with fetal alcohol syndrome or tests positive for drugs, she had to use long term birth control, and that's how I wrote the bill.

The politicians took it and added they'd have to go to jail. I don't believe jail is the answer, because if you start locking them up, they'll stop going to the hospital. The bill almost passed and then it didn't. I asked the law professors I'd been working with if I could offer these women money to use birth control and they told me I could do it.

PD: What do you say to people who say your organization is unethical?
BH: My opinion is, with rights come responsibilities, and if you're acting irresponsibly, then you should lose that right 'til you act responsibly. I guess it depends on where your heart is. Some people are so into the women and their rights to get pregnant that they seem to forget about the rights of the kids. They act like these children don't matter.

People need to realize these women don't want to have babies that are taken away from them. Nothing positive comes to the woman who has eight children taken away from her. Typically, it sends her deeper into her addiction because she feels regret and sadness about losing yet another child.

PD: How does money play into it?
BH: Yes, it takes money to get their attention, but it's something they know they need to do. They're not thinking about the birth or the child. They're thinking about how they are going to get high and who they are going to rob and prostitute with; that's their whole life.

They're consumed with that, so, when they hear "money," it gets their attention and they listen to the message. A lot of them tell me if it wasn't for the money, they wouldn't have done it, but, to me, if you can spend $300 to prevent child abuse, then it's the best $300 you can spend.

PD: Are some women sterilized?
BH: They can be if they want to. One third of the women who have come through our program choose to do so, but before doing that they had numerous children. None of them didn't have children before doing so.

They choose either the implant in the arm or an IUD, and those women can get paid $300 a year, because as long as they keep it in, we keep paying them.

PD: Do you offer rehab?
BH: Yes, we offer referrals to drug rehab programs. A lot of the women who come to us are in drug rehab programs and they often relapse and go back out and use drugs before we can get their check to them. At least they are on birth control, so we know they're not going to get pregnant again.

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