These babies exposed to drugs and alcohol found open arms, not stigma

Marina Affo, Delaware News Journal
These babies exposed to drugs and alcohol found open arms, not stigma

WILMINGTON, Del. – Three sets of tiny eyes looked up at Erin Meyer and Sandra Medinilla that Friday morning around their kitchen island. 

The first pair belonged to caramel-skinned 3-year-old Xavier and his permanent slight smile. 

Beside Xavier sat a similarly tan-skinned boy with black hair, round dimpled cheeks, a wide-toothed grin and twinkly eyes that always managed to find the nearest camera. The 2-year-old's name was Theo. 

In a highchair opposite Theo was the third pair of eyes. Much more reserved than her brothers, 1-year-old fair-skinned, baby-blue-eyed Remy often reached for her mommy as she munched on animal crackers and yogurt.

Watching over, cleaning boogies and playing peek-a-boo with them stood their two mothers, both doctors at ChristianaCare. But in that space filled with toy trucks, diapers and make-believe kitchens, they were just Mama and Mommy.

Family photos from the Meyer-Medinilla home in Wilmington.

"Wow! Pero que guapo, mi amor! (Wow! How handsome, my love!)" Sandra exclaimed as Xavier came down the stairs in slacks and a nice shirt after breakfast. The little man's small smile got a little bigger at his mom's compliments. 

Sandra, who is Guatemalan, speaks both Spanish and English. As a result, all the Meyer children are already bilingual and also know some American sign language. 

But it's not the only thing that links all of them together. Besides being adopted and bilingual, Xavier, Theo and Remy were all exposed to drugs or alcohol when they were in utero. When they were born, all suffered from withdrawal symptoms. 

Working in Delaware, a state heavily impacted by addiction, these doctors saw firsthand the reach of substance use disorder and the children it was affecting. They wanted to show parents that these children weren't damaged, but in fact, beautiful and in need of loving homes.

Now, the only thing these three children seem to be struggling with is catching the attention of one of their moms at the breakfast island and laughing through tummy tickles. 

Erin, who is an internal medicine and pediatric hospitalist at Christiana Hospital in Delaware, says that unless the family told you the children were exposed to substances before they were born, you'd never know. 

And while wrangling their babies is part of their daily routine, Friday, Nov. 22 was an extra special day for the Meyer-Medinilla family.

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While three sets of eyes were at the island that morning, one more pair was shut in sleep upstairs. The family of five would be growing that afternoon to a family of six.

Six-month-old Sydney would, by the end of the day, be the latest addition to the quickly growing family.

Like her brothers and sister, she was also exposed to drugs or alcohol when she was born.

But like her brothers and sister, her moms say their newest daughter is not doing anything very out of the ordinary – besides actually sleeping when they want her to. 

Family photos from the Meyer-Medinilla's home in Wilmington.

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In her role as a pediatrician, Erin has seen her fair share of newborn babies with prenatal drug and alcohol exposure.

Last year, Delaware reported 612 children born substance-exposed, up 33% from 460 children reported in 2017. 

She says anecdotally, pediatricians at ChristianaCare care for at least two to three newborn babies a week who have been exposed to drugs. She's helped nurse them back to health in the neonatal intensive care unit. She's seen them get stronger and healthy enough to go home. And she's also worked hard to calm down their parents. 

Erin said she's noticed that parents are afraid that because their child was exposed to drugs or alcohol, the child will also grow up to be dependent on them, or have behavioral issues or mental disabilities as a result.

While the chances of those things occurring is higher in those babies, Erin said it's only higher by 4% to 5%.

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When it came time to adopt their own children in 2016, she talked to her wife, Sandra, and said she wanted to adopt one of those kids in particular because she wasn't afraid of the challenges. 

The couple first tried to adopt in 2015 through the Philadelphia-based agency Adoptions from the Heart, which has offices in Trolley Square, but they suffered a "disruption."

They had twin girls for 24 days, but then the birth mother decided to retain custody of her children, a decision she had up to 30 days to make.

As devastating as the situation was, it put Erin and Sandra at the top of the list of potential parents. It is what made it possible for them to get their first child, Xavier, and subsequently, Remy. The two are biological half-siblings.

So the pair, who met in 2012 on the trauma bay at ChristianaCare and married in 2014, adopted their first son, Xavier, in 2016. Then came Theo in 2017, followed by Remy in 2018 and now, Sydney.

"It's the best thing I've ever done," Erin said. Sandra was quick to echo her wife's words while smiling at Remy during breakfast.

When she finished breakfast, Sandra – who goes by "Mommy" – playfully wrestled to get tights on a giggly Remy. Shoulder-length black hair would sometimes fall on her face as she blew raspberries on the little girl's stomach. When it came time to do her daughter's hair, however, she passed her off to Erin.

Sandra Medinilla helps daughter Remy put on a shirt as her son Theo pushes a toy cart in the background. Sandra and her wife have just adopted their fourth child.

While the 44-year-old trauma surgeon had no issues cutting into the bodies of strangers on a daily basis, a year after Remy joined the family she still couldn't stand to see or hear the tiny whimpers that come with pulling her daughter's hair into pigtails.

In that space filled with toy trucks, diapers and make-believe kitchens, they were just Mama and Mommy. Gone were their lab coats and scrubs. Instead, their tasks were simpler, like helping Theo identify monkeys and elephants on his animal cracker wrapper.

Their starting points in life were less important. Now, Xavier, Theo, Remy and Sydney were just kids whose loving parents doted on them and ran around after them. 

Erin and Sandra hope more prospective parents understand that no matter how a child's life starts, it doesn’t automatically spell doom and gloom, especially when an estimated 15% of babies are affected by prenatal alcohol or drug exposure each year, according to the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare. 

Adoptions From the Heart hopes so too, because the adoption agency has seen a large spike in babies exposed to drugs or alcohol, said social worker Amanda Aliberti. 

From just January 2019 to October 2019, 64% of birth mothers at their agency reported using some form of drugs or alcohol during pregnancy, Aliberti said. In 2016, that number was 33% for the whole year. 

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The organization that helped Erin and Sandra start their family has formed a lasting bond with the couple.

After they adopted Xavier, the pair started hosting prospective parents of babies from out of state and talking to them about their own personal journey adopting children exposed to drugs and alcohol. 

Dr. Erin Meyer and her wife and Dr. Sandra Medinilla sit with their four adopted children during an adoption ceremony for their fourth child, 6-month-old Sydney.

They show them Xavier, who like any eldest child has already learned how to work around the childproof gates in the house, much to the dismay of his moms. He gets annoyed when his little brother gets to wear brown shoes out and he can't.

They introduce them to Theo, who proudly names all the animals on his cracker wrapper at breakfast before jumping down from his seat to prepare a meal at the nearby toy kitchen.

And they let them see little Remy, who, when not smiling at her moms, often stares intently at people in the room, almost as if the longer she looks, the more she can understand them. 

Erin also took it one step further and now hosts seminars and webinars for prospective parents on what to expect down the line with children who are a little different but not that much different. 

Just like her own.

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When Sandra walked into the courtroom, she immediately pulled tissues out of her bulging mommy bag to dab her eyes. Then, she passed some out to more than a dozen friends and family gathered there. 

A courtroom normally devoid of joy was filled with Paw Patrol and princess balloons. A slideshow opposite the jury seats cycled through photos of the Meyer-Medinilla family over the last three years. 

Dr. Erin Meyer and her wife and Dr. Sandra Medinilla sit with their four adopted children during an adoption ceremony for their fourth child, 6-month-old Sydney.

Sandra's parents, Myriam and Otto Medinilla, sat among the teary-eyed faces in the jury booth. 

Myriam, who came to America with her husband in 1972 from Guatemala, said she remembers people adopting kids when she was younger. She always used to say what a blessing the adults were bestowing on the adopted children. 

Now a grandmother of four adopted babies, she said she was wrong.

Yes, the parents are providing, she said. But the children are also bringing so much love and joy and energy to the table. 

"We are very blessed," she said as she smiled down at Xavier, who had come scampering along to say hi to his grandparents. 

(left to right)Judges Paul Wallace and Vivian Medinilla oversee the adoption ceremony of 6-month-old Sydney making her Dr. Erin Meyer and her wife Dr. Sandra Medinilla parents to four adopted children. Judge Vivian Medinilla is Dr. Susan Medinilla's sister.

Behind the judge's bench sat another Medinilla: Sandra's sister, Vivian, also known as "Aunt Judge Viv."

Though Judge Medinilla did not handle the legal paperwork of the adoptions, she was granted special permission by the court to oversee the official ceremony. 

Throughout the emotional gathering, representatives from Adoptions From the Heart talked about how helpful Erin and Sandra have been to other families. 

Every person in the room shed tears at least once as Judge Medinilla used Winnie the Pooh quotes to show how loving and caring a blended family like theirs is. 

Multiple Meyer and Medinilla family members from Michigan and Florida Skyped in with big smiles, waves and air kisses to say their congratulations. 

Dr. Erin Meyer and her wife Dr. Sandra Medinilla wave to family and friends that video chatted during the adoption ceremony of their fourth child 6-month-old Sydney.

And before long, baby Sydney was baptized and ceremoniously welcomed into the Meyer-Medinilla fold. 

"Piglet once asked, 'How do you spell love?' Pooh responded, 'You don't spell it, you feel it,'" Aunt Judge Viv said through slight tears as she looked to her family near the end of the ceremony.

"Sandra and Erin, we hope you feel the love today and every day on your new journey." 

Follow Marina Affo on Twitter at @marina_affo. 

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This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Drug exposure in babies: Delaware moms adopt exposed kids, get repaid