(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)
KELLY ZIMMERMAN: Whoa, whoa.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
That is Kelly Zimmerman, a 27-year-old mom in Reading, Pa., giving her toddler Jaxton a bath.
ZIMMERMAN: Your little piggy toes are all wrinkly already.
GREENE: Zimmerman was addicted to heroin for years. Many women in her situation end up having their babies put into foster care. The country's opioid crisis has only made this worse. As part of an NPR-wide project on parenting, NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee tells us about Zimmerman's fight to defy the odds and keep her baby.
RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: For most of her life, Kelly Zimmerman felt alone and anxious when she was a child and her mother suffered episodes of depression or had to work the late shift.
ZIMMERMAN: My mom worked at night.
CHATTERJEE: When her friends wanted to come over.
ZIMMERMAN: What does your house look like?
CHATTERJEE: And she felt too ashamed to let them see their buckling floor.
ZIMMERMAN: We didn't have running water.
CHATTERJEE: Kelly learned to shut out a lot of feelings. Then, when she was 18, a boyfriend offered her a painkiller - a Percocet.
ZIMMERMAN: To me, I was like, oh, where has this been my whole life?
CHATTERJEE: Kelly was hooked, first to painkillers and then...
CHATTERJEE: For years, she was content to live and, she says, maybe even die on drugs. But then, when she was 26, she gave birth to her son, Jaxton.
ZIMMERMAN: (Laughter) Like, I was in love with him. You know, this is my baby. (Laughter) Like, it was, like, a good overwhelming, kind of I-don't-really-know-how-to-feel type of feeling - like, a-lot-of-feelings feeling (laughter).
CHATTERJEE: But Kelly knew that she and Jaxton had a tough road ahead. She was a single mom and grieving. Her son's father had died recently from a heart attack. She was also on methadone. And so when Jaxton was born, he suffered from opioid withdrawal.
ZIMMERMAN: Like, tensing up.
CHATTERJEE: And shaking.
ZIMMERMAN: I just felt like crap because I did this to him. You know, like, I know what it's like to go through those withdrawals, and just feeling like I want to die.
CHATTERJEE: Kelly visited Jaxton every day in the neonatal intensive care unit, and she made a promise to him.
ZIMMERMAN: I need to make this up to you somehow. If you have to be here, I'm going to be here.
CHATTERJEE: She was determined to do whatever it took to get Jaxton better and raise him herself. But on her own, the chances of doing this were slim.
The year her son was born, 92,000 children throughout the U.S. were removed from their homes because at least one parent had a problem with drug abuse. Kelly worried that if she relapsed, her son would be taken away from her, too. Valerie Chandler manages the Opioid Use Disorder Center at the Reading Hospital.
VALERIE CHANDLER: OK. You're a new mom. You just gave birth.
CHATTERJEE: She says, imagine for a moment what women in Kelly's situation are going through.
CHANDLER: So you were using opiates, and now you know - you know the hammer's coming. The county's coming to get you. You're going to lose this child, and you screwed up. Oh, and, by the way, don't use drugs anymore. Right? Your one coping skill is gone.
CHATTERJEE: Drugs were Kelly's only coping skill. And while she was using, she pushed everyone away.
JESSIE PALMER: It hurt a lot. It, like, made me...
CHATTERJEE: Her sister, Jessie Palmer, agonized over her baby sister.
PALMER: There's a couple pictures that always flash in my mind when I think about Kelly. One was at a wedding where she was dancing with me. And I remember - I'm sorry. I'm going to cry (crying) 'cause that was always the picture that I would send to her when I would tell her that I missed her.
CHATTERJEE: Jessie didn't hear from her sister over the years. And then came the news.
PALMER: The darkest moment...
CHATTERJEE: Kelly was pregnant.
PALMER: What's going to happen here?
CHATTERJEE: So she confronted her sister about it.
PALMER: You're less than three months till you're going to have this baby. Like, what are you going to do?
ZIMMERMAN: She was like, well, what's your plan? And I was just like, I don't have a plan. I don't know.
CHATTERJEE: A plan - a plan to get clean, to get organized around a new baby in the home. Kelly knew she needed a plan, but she didn't know where to start. So she went to Reading Hospital and signed up for every service she could find. The hospital referred her to Berks Parents Services Collaborative. Social workers there knew that without a plan, moms like Kelly can crumble under the stress.
For many years, they had watched nearly every baby born to an addicted mom be placed into foster care. They realized they needed to help pregnant women like Kelly well before their babies are born. Christina Cortez was Kelly's caseworker, and she told her...
CHRISTINA CORTEZ: I'm here to help you.
CHATTERJEE: But to do so, Kelly would have to agree to a meeting with the county's Children and Youth Services and her family.
CORTEZ: She didn't like me very much around this time 'cause she thought it was the stupidest thing.
ZIMMERMAN: It was, like, a two-, three-hour meeting of sitting with my family, talking about my problems. Like, I didn't want to do that. Who does?
CHATTERJEE: But she knew she had to do it because she couldn't bear the thought of relapsing and losing her baby. On the day of the meeting, Cortez says Kelly was nervous.
CORTEZ: And scared that her family won't embrace her.
CHATTERJEE: But the family was eager to help, she says. They just didn't know how. And they didn't understand Kelly's addiction. So Cortez and her colleagues brought in an addiction expert.
CORTEZ: And I think that was a pivotal moment for her family.
CHATTERJEE: That's when they understood that her addiction wasn't a choice, but a mental health problem. Then, the family and Kelly got to work to come up with a plan. Her sister Jessie says...
PALMER: A plan - yay. You know, now she needs us. You know, now we have to be part of her plan.
CHATTERJEE: The family then figured out things like...
ZIMMERMAN: Who is going to take Kelly to her appointments? Who's going to watch Jaxton if, you know, I need them to?
CHATTERJEE: Kelly finally saw that she had help. Reading Hospital's Valerie Chandler says society expects women in Kelly's situation to do it all on their own.
CHANDLER: Like, we ask people to do these incredibly difficult things without any thought about where they really are.
CHATTERJEE: And that, she says, just sets them up to fail.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD PLAYING)
CHATTERJEE: Jaxton is now a healthy, rambunctious toddler with a big smile and a head full of curls.
ZIMMERMAN: That's your favorite.
CHATTERJEE: Kelly has been clean for two years. She and Jaxton now live with her parents, and she has a whole team of people standing by her, making sure that she and Jaxton can stay together. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.
ZIMMERMAN: Left foot, right foot.
(SOUNDBITE OF HANS WOLFGANG ZIEGLER'S "SUNNY AND CLOUDY")
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