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Trying to end the drug cycle

The hysterical phone call came in the dead of night: Coming down from a crack cocaine high, the pregnant woman became frightened about what she was doing to her unborn baby. She told the Rev. Wilkins Garrett Jr., pastor of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, that she already had three children. That she had spent the family food money on crack. That she didn't know what to do.

The situation profoundly saddened Garrett, but the situation wasn't unique. In his nine years as pastor of the church, he has seen an increasing number of addicted mothers and cocaine babies.

Now he and the rest of the members of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church are trying to do something about it.

Garrett has organized a group of 15 families from Mount Zion and other predominantly black churches that will be foster parents for cocaine babies. The prospective foster parents are in a training program given by the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS).

But that's only a first step.

Garrett also plans to open a placement agency and day-care center for cocaine babies through the church once he gets the required license from HRS. The need, he says, is something that can't be ignored in St. Petersburg.

"One more generation of children being raised by drug-addicted parents will put the city in jeopardy," Garrett said. "I think the city has invested enough in its redevelopment _ the stadium, the Bayfront Center and The Pier _ that it can't afford not to invest in its children."

Garrett has gotten off to an auspicious start. His first contributor is New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden, who lives in St. Petersburg. He gave the church $1,000 to kick off fund raising. Jim Neader, Gooden's manager, on Monday confirmed the donation.

Garrett estimates his church will need $130,000 to get the program started. About $30,000 of that will go for personnel required by HRS. The rest is for renovations of two church buildings for a day-care center for cocaine babies and other underprivileged children.

HRS spokeswoman Elaine Fulton-Jones confirmed that Mount Zion had applied for a permit to run a placement agency. She said HRS administrators are enthusiastic about the programs planned at Mount Zion.

"It's absolutely wonderful that they're filling that need," she said. "I think everybody's very excited and thrilled about this because the need is so great."

About 135 cocaine babies were born in Pinellas County in fiscal 1989, said Catherine Deans, an HRS spokeswoman. Another study showed that one in seven babies born in Pinellas County had been exposed to drugs of some form, said Kate Howze, community relations specialist for the county Juvenile Welfare Board.

While this organization is composed of members of churches that are mainly black, the problem cuts across racial lines, state health officials say.

Cocaine babies have special needs, often lagging behind their peers in physical and mental development. Cocaine babies are prone to strokes before birth and are at risk after birth for seizures or sudden infant death syndrome.

Garrett said one of the church's main priorities is to keep children from area families in the area until their families can take them back or until they are adopted.

"We want to place the babies in their own community _ in the homes of our church members," Garrett said.