When I was in law school in the early 1990s, I wrote a paper on the criminalization of pregnant women who were addicted to illegal drugs. I was horrified to learn that there were virtually no treatment facilities for pregnant women in either Canada or the United States. Women who did seek help were often put in jail or held in hospitals until their babies were born, at which time they were routinely removed from their mother’s care by child protection authorities.
Several years later, I met Adam Newman, a family physician in Kingston, who was seeing a lot of women with drug dependencies who also had kids. He wanted to do something to support those women to get and stay clean, and so was born the plan for the Kingston House of Recovery for Women and Children.
The organization’s mission is to provide care and support for pregnant and parenting women affected by substance use. It takes a harm reduction approach and has the vision of creating
“a socially just community where women affected by substance use can raise their children with their rightful due of health, safety and human dignity.”
There are no residential treatment programs in eastern Ontario with designated beds or specialized programming for pregnant or parenting women, which leaves these women and their children in a very vulnerable position. Some women leave their kids behind so they can enter traditional residential treatment programs, but those programs don’t address the unique issues faced by pregnant and parenting women. As one woman says, that leaves a big gap in the treatment:
“Treatment was great and taught me how to live a real life again. . . When I got home, things caved in. I had my son back and he was demanding. No one had taught me how to deal with him and what to do when he triggered me. . . I wish there was a place we could have both gone together and learned how to be a family . . .I would have found the parenting part one of the most useful areas.”
One step at a time
While the Kingston House is not yet open, the years since Newman first developed the concept have been productive. He is working closely with a Montreal-based organization, Portage Mere Enfant, that operates Canada’s only mother/child treatment centre. It houses and provides six months of treatment for up to 25 mothers and their children.
In the meantime, Newman developed a pilot in-hospital program to support opiod-dependent women during and immediately following child-birth. That pilot is now the standard of care at Kingston General Hospital.
Because babies of opiod dependent mothers are born with their own drug dependency, they go through withdrawal in the first weeks of their lives. Neonatal abstinence syndrome can seriously compromise the health of the infant.
Typically, these babies are separated from their mothers and placed in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) where they are monitored and treated with low doses of morphine for several weeks. The mother is released from hospital without her baby and must return to the NICU for visits; if, that is, the baby has not been taken into care by the child protection authority.
The Kingston program reflects current knowledge, which says that skin to skin contact between the baby and its mother along with breastfeeding is as effective as the use of drugs in combatting withdrawal.
“It’s very dramatic. If you take its clothes off, put its naked skin against its mother’s naked skin and let her nuzzle it between her breasts, it’s like giving it medicine. I mean, it’s better than morphine.”
The mother and baby stay together in a rooming-in program until the baby has completed withdrawal, which usually takes about five days. Hospital and child protection staff monitor and support while the mother concentrates on mothering.
“A life worth living”
In Kingston, the Sisters of Providence will provide the space for the live-in treatment facility. Portage is providing the start-up money for renovations, staff training and administrative set-up. What is missing is the funding to cover the operating costs, and that’s where you come in.
Please consider sending an email to Premier Doug Ford (firstname.lastname@example.org), Minister of Health Christine Elliott (email@example.com) and Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Michael Tibollo (firstname.lastname@example.org ) urging them to fund this extremely important harm reduction initiative that will allow mothers to receive treatment for their drug dependency as well as learn positive parenting, all while their children are with them.
“I was certain that I was just bound to die in addiction. I didn’t think I was capable of being a mother. . . Today, I can tell you I am exactly what my kids need. . . . Portage saved my life, my kids’ lives. I feel incredibly lucky, incredibly blessed to have gone. I love what it gave me – a life worth living.”