Massachusetts Facing Epidemic of Drug-Addicted Newborns

By McCarton Ackerman 04/01/14

Due to the overall rise of opiate use, Massachusetts has seen a stark rise in the number of babies born addicted to drugs. And without federal help, hospitals are left to their own devices.

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The drug addiction issues plaguing Massachusetts aren’t just limited to teenagers and adults. Roughly 1,300 babies in the state were born in 2012 with “neonatal abstinence syndrome," which involves withdrawal symptoms from illegal opiates such as heroin or prescription drugs such as Oxycontin or methadone, and those numbers are expected to have increased last year. Several hospitals throughout the state are reporting double and triple the number of drug-addicted babies being admitted in 2013 compared to 2012.

Because there are no federally approved medications or standard procedures to follow for drug-addicted babies, hospitals are left to improvise treatment plans. Once these newborns and infants are treated, they are often placed back in the custody of their parents struggling with addiction. At Boston Medical Center, 85 percent of the 106 babies suffering from drug withdrawal are returned to their parents.

“We have real concerns about these extremely vulnerable newborns,’’ said Gail Garinger, head of the state’s Office of the Child Advocate. “Unfortunately, with some families there are not enough supports that can be put in place to keep their infants safely at home.”

Robert Sege, medical director of the Child Protection Team at Boston Medical Center, said that one-third of the parents who receive treatment for their addictions afterwards end up relapsing; within a year, their children are placed in the foster care system. More than 50 percent of children in state foster care are placed with relatives, but this often means they are unable to be shielded from their drug-addicted parents. Child welfare advocates in the state have also criticized the well-intended efforts of social workers to keep dysfunctional families together because it puts the kids at greater risk for harm.

Last week, Gov. Deval Patrick declared a public health emergency to combat the increasing abuse of opiates and referred it to as an epidemic. He declared that all of the state’s emergency personnel must be equipped with a drug to immediately reverse the effects of heroin overdoses; earlier this month, police in a suburb of Baltimore have also started carrying around the anti-heroin overdose spray known as Narcan.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.