New Hampshire Mothers Struggling With Opioid Addiction Fight To Keep Their Children
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A record number of women who are struggling with opioid addiction are being forced to give up their newborn children. As Rachel Gotbaum reports, the state has few services to offer these mothers before they risk losing their children permanently.
RACHEL GOTBAUM, BYLINE: For several years, Jillian Broomstein was addicted to Percocet and heroin. But once she learned she was pregnant at age 26, she knew she wanted to get off drugs.
JILLIAN BROOMSTEIN: I started off by going to detox when I found out I was pregnant because I wanted a clean slate.
GOTBAUM: In New Hampshire, the waitlist for a detox bed is long, so Broomstein drove down to Massachusetts. It was there she was put on methadone and told it was the best way to treat her disease and to keep her baby safe. After detox, she returned home to rural New Hampshire. But getting to the closest methadone clinic each day was a challenge, and sometimes she bought opiates off the street. She knew withdrawing from drugs could endanger her pregnancy.
BROOMSTEIN: I was more worried about the unborn baby. You know, I'm unable to get transportation, so now I'm detoxing pregnant, which is dangerous.
GOTBAUM: Broomstein's son Jeremy was born healthy, except that he tested positive for methadone. In New Hampshire, hospitals are required by law to inform the state Division for Children, Youth and Families, also known as DCYF. And Broomstein would need to find a safe place to live, or she could lose her son.
BROOMSTEIN: I was told that you have to have 24-hour supervision from a family member that would be able to vouch for you, so, like, a grandmother, a stay-at-home mom - anybody like that. But in order to keep my child, I had to have 24-hour supervision.
GOTBAUM: Broomstein grew up in foster care and had no family of her own. She tried to get a bed in one of the few residential drug treatment programs for new mothers, but they were all full. So she and her newborn moved in with a friend and her kids. They were there for just two weeks when two women and a police officer came to the door. They were from DCYF.
BROOMSTEIN: They said that if I couldn't find a family member that they would have to take him and place him in foster care.
GOTBAUM: Even though Jillian Broomstein had not used heroin for months and was in counseling and parenting classes, Jeremy was taken from her that day.
BROOMSTEIN: I was doing all the work that they wanted me to do, but I had to - until I got into a place, they weren't going to give him back to me. It was hard. Like, it just feels like you rip your chest out.
GOTBAUM: The number of children placed in foster care in New Hampshire has more than doubled in recent years. Much of that is a result of the opioid epidemic, which has overwhelmed the state's limited resources. Joseph Ribsam runs DCYF.
JOSEPH RIBSAM: What you'd see in a lot of other jurisdictions is you have a caseload of something around 12 families. Right now in New Hampshire, people have an average caseload of somewhere in the 40s. That's a huge difference.
GOTBAUM: But that's not the only difference, says Ribsam. Because of major budget cuts to child welfare, caseworkers in New Hampshire can only offer help to struggling families once they have opened a case of abuse and neglect. There's little money to support parents before that happens.
RIBSAM: The result of that is exactly what you see in the data - that more children coming into the foster care system that otherwise might not if we had the capacity to serve families more holistically up front.
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GOTBAUM: In the kitchen of an old house in Rochester, N.H., moms are gathered with their babies.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Mama, Mama.
GOTBAUM: This is Hope On Haven Hill, where eight pregnant women and new moms can live with their children while they receive treatment for their drug addiction. Some of the women who live here are battling to get their kids back from the state. They have 12 months to do what the court asks of them, which includes staying sober in treatment and finding safe and secure housing, or they can lose their parental rights.
COURTNEY TANNER: I cannot stress enough that 12 months is a really short window for somebody who's in early recovery.
GOTBAUM: Courtney Tanner runs this program.
TANNER: If a mother can't find resources, or if a mother experiences a relapse during that 12-month window, the child can be removed from her and put up for adoption. Her rights could be terminated.
GOTBAUM: Jillian Broomstein almost lost her son Jeremy to state custody, but she was determined to get him back. After he was placed into foster care, she continued her methadone treatment and finally got a bed in another residential treatment program for young moms. She was reunited with him after a few months, but she knows a lot of women who gave up hope and went back to using drugs.
BROOMSTEIN: They said in court that it was an odd case that they gave me my child back so quickly. It made me want to cry. Not a lot of people make it and get their children back in that year.
GOTBAUM: Broomstein is now living in Nashua, far from the rural town where she first started using heroin, and where there are many more services to help her rebuild her life. While Jeremy is in daycare, she is studying business administration and hopes one day to open her own bakery in the neighborhood. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Gotbaum.
SIMON: And our story was produced in collaboration with our partners at Kaiser Health News.
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