BABIES will be taken away at birth from drug-addicted or abused mothers who refuse to seek help, under new state laws that will kick in while the child is still in the womb.
Pregnant women who abuse drugs or alcohol will be made to sign a Parental Responsibility Contract ordering them to undergo treatment for the sake of their baby.
If they refuse or show no intention of complying, the government will be able to remove the child the moment it is born and use the broken PRC to immediately start formal proceedings to place the baby in the Minister's care.
The new legislation will also extend to pregnant woman who suffer domestic violence.
In those cases, the women will be asked to sign a PRC ordering them to either leave their partner, move in with a relative or seek help through domestic violence counselling.
HOW THE NEW LAWS WILL WORK
While the PRC process has been operating for several years, current laws state they can only be applied to a parent after their child is born rather than while it is still in the womb.
This means expectant mothers with a drug addiction can continue feeding their habit up until birth.
It is hoped that under the new scheme that will no longer happen and, in best case scenarios, the pregnant women will seek treatment and immediately cease their drug habit.
Babies born with a substance addictions cry in pain for hours, suffer tremors, respiratory problems and have low birth weight.
Family and Community Services Minister Pru Goward said the changes were designed to put the child first and provide the strongest possible incentive for troubled mothers to turn their lives around.
"I make no apologies for taking this bold new approach to child protection, which ensures we are putting the best interests of the child at the centre of every decision we make," Ms Goward said.
SYMPTOMS OF A DRUG-ADDICTED BABY:
The new laws are awaiting final approval from Cabinet before they are submitted to parliament.
"Whether it is raising the stakes on early intervention or improving access to open adoption, these reforms are about providing families and caseworkers with the support and tools they need to ensure vulnerable children have a safe home for life," Ms Goward said.
While it will be a magistrate's decision on whether to place the child in the minister's care, the legislation will state that a broken contract should be viewed as a strong case for a child to be placed in foster care.
NSW Health does not record the number of babies born with drug addictions, however in the three years to 2011 John Hunter Hospital on the Central Coast recorded 238 babies born with an addiction to substances including heroin, cannabis and amphetamines.
One case The Sunday Telegraph is aware of is a drug-dependent baby, Holly, aged 1, who was removed from her mother, a long-term drug user.
Despite undergoing a medicated withdrawal she suffered life-threatening complications and required 24-hour supervision.
Reports since May suggest she is now recovering as a direct result of the work by her foster carer and management by caseworkers with Community services.
In August a court ordered that she be placed into long-term adoption, though she will continue to have contact with her siblings, who are also in the state's care.
DEFENCELESS TINY ADDICTS, NURTURED WITH LOVE:
IT is the sound of their cry, a piercing, distinctive scream that can only come from a baby withdrawing from drug-addiction.
"It's a different cry, it's a heartbreaking cry, you can't describe it but when you hear it you can tell it's not a normal baby cry," Jodie, 46, a Barnardos foster carer who has cared for 27 addict-babies, said.
"Their little knees are up into their stomach and they're screaming. You can walk the floor for six or seven hours with the baby crying continuously - they're in pain."
When she first started fostering newborns 12 years ago, babies with an addiction were almost non-existent.
Today, they are routinely in her care. Her last seven babies were all withdrawing from drugs spanning from methamphetamines to heroin to cannabis.
She picks them up from hospital, takes them home and immediately begins administering doses of morphine, which they need every four hours. That can continue for up to four months.
"I've had cases where they've got infections in their toes, under their armpits from the withdrawals," she said.
"They're not like your normal cuddly baby, they're very stiff and in a fair bit of pain."
One baby in particular sticks out in her memory.
He was suffering terribly.
The hospital had kept him under observation for six weeks - much longer than usual.
He was withdrawing heavily and they could not stabilise him with medication.
Due to privacy reasons, the child and the hospital cannot be identified but, she said, nurses said it was the worst case they had seen.
"It was hard work dealing with that, my husband and me didn't get much sleep for the first three months," Jodie, who also has two children aged 16 and 18, said.
"But to see him now, he ended up going to his aunty, he's three now and he's a happy healthy little boy."
If there is a plus side to their story it's that each one leaves her care as a happy, healthy baby.
"Once they're off (their addiction), all of them (have) become like a normal child.
It's very rewarding to see them at the end of it."
She used to hate their mothers, couldn't stand them.
Then she met them and heard their side of the story.
Not surprisingly, many had their own stories of childhood pain that, while not an excuse, explained their decline into addiction, she said.
"Originally I hated them, I thought how could you do that to a child.
"But it's an illness. You can see they love them and the drugs get in the way."