In Vermont, A Network Of Help For Opiate-Addicted Mothers : Shots - Health News Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin attracted national attention this month when he devoted his entire annual State of the State speech to heroin addiction in Vermont. As the state expands addiction treatment services, it's also trying to come to grips with one of the most difficult and emotional aspects of the problem: pregnant women addicted to opiates.

In Vermont, A Network Of Help For Opiate-Addicted Mothers

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

Vermont's governor recently devoted his entire state of the state address to one subject, what he called a full-blown addiction crisis. To turn things around, Vermont has expanded treatment. And as Steve Zind of Vermont Public Radio reports, the state has come to grips with one of the most difficult and emotional aspects of the crisis: addicted mothers.

STEVE ZIND, BYLINE: What was news to the rest of the country was not news to Vermonters. More than a dozen years ago, a study sounded an alarm about heroin addiction and said treatment was practically non-existent. Since then, the addiction problem in Vermont has grown, including opioid use by pregnant women. Between 2005 and 2010, the number of babies with symptoms of opioid exposure tripled. But treatment programs in Vermont are no longer meager and disjointed.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, there. The torture's over, little lady.

ZIND: As she swaddles her healthy, day-old baby at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, this young Vermont mother, who wants to remain anonymous because she comes from a small town, is more relieved than most. Not long before she became pregnant, she hurt her back. A friend gave her some prescription pain killers.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It didn't take long to go from this is all right to take sometime to I've got to do it every day. And I'm puking and to having withdrawal symptoms if I'm not doing it.

ZIND: Most pregnant Vermont women addicted to opioids seek treatment. This mother was one of the first to go to a new Dartmouth-Hitchcock clinic that reflects a shift in how mothers like her are being cared for. From a location in a renovated mill, the clinic offers treatment, group counseling, and psychiatric services, and works in partnership with the doctors at the hospital. Before the clinic opened, those services were scattered, uncoordinated, and often hard to access.

Nurse-midwife Daisy Goodman says finding treatment for the women was especially frustrating.

DAISY GOODMAN: Our patients, if they were brave enough to come forward - and it takes an enormous amount of courage to come forward and ask for help - were then being told, there's really nothing we can do to help.

ZIND: The clinic, in bordering New Hampshire, gets nearly half of its funding from Vermont. Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen says treating addiction in pregnant and new mothers is especially challenging.

DR. HARRY CHEN: Because it requires so many different systems working together well: the social service system, the health care system, the substance abuse treatment system, and even to some extent the correctional system.

ZIND: Each of those systems makes its own demands on a mother in treatment. There's daycare and transportation to arrange for a crowded schedule of appointments at different locations. For more than a decade, a program at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington has tried to bring them all together. Dr. Marjorie Meyer is an obstetrician at Fletcher Allen.

DR. MARJORIE MEYER: That's one of the keystones, trying to get everything all in one place. Again, these women don't have very organized lives.

ZIND: Meyer says the other key is communication. That's done at regular meetings where health care providers, social workers and state agencies compare notes on each mother. Programs like this aren't unique, but they are the exception. Dr. Lauren Jansson is pediatric director at a drug treatment program for pregnant and parenting women in Baltimore.

DR. LAUREN JANSSON: While we recognize that it's the ideal way to treat this population, in reality, I don't think a lot of that is happening.

ZIND: The stress of raising a newborn and factors like poverty and family dysfunction increase the risk of relapse soon after a child is born. Vermont providers say that period in a mother's life needs more attention.


ZIND: As she prepares to return home with her newborn, the mother at Dartmouth-Hitchcock says she worries about relapsing.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I do. You know, the stresses of a new baby and also the stresses of being a mom of three. Just - it used to be a coping mechanism for me. It was like my mom time kind of - you know what I mean? Like, time for me.

ZIND: She hopes the new Dartmouth-Hitchcock program will help her stay clean. For NPR News, I'm Steve Zind.

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