Pregnant Women With Addiction Face Variety Of Treatment Hurdles

By Victoria Kim 08/15/17
New mothers in need of addiction treatment face a lack of support services, and the possibility of jail time and losing custody of their child.
pregnant woman touching her belly and head, sitting on chair

New or expectant mothers with opioid addiction face a unique challenge. There’s the threat of losing custody. Effective, affordable substance use disorder (SUD) treatment programs are already lacking for the general population, and those that give specialized care to pregnant or postpartum women are even more scarce.

A new Washington Post report brings to light these difficulties that new moms face. Neonatologist Stephen Patrick, assistant professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, says a punitive approach toward drug-using moms is more harmful than helpful.

“Oftentimes what I see is that we treat pregnant women even worse than we treat the general population with opioid use disorder,” said Patrick. “We should be offering them more compassion.”

Drug use during pregnancy is defined as child abuse according to laws in 24 states and Washington, D.C. Doctors are often required to report newborns that exhibit drug withdrawal symptoms to the authorities, which may lead to loss of custody or even jail time.

According to PBS, the number of children in their grandparents’ custody increased from 2.5 million in 2005 to 2.9 million by 2015. Child welfare officials say this is due in large part to the drug epidemic that’s rendered millions of parents unfit to care for their children.

“You may have all the willingness to stop because you want a healthy baby, you want to keep that baby,” said 35-year-old Jennifer Kostoff of Granite City, Illinois, who found out she was pregnant just over a week into a program to get her off of heroin. Upon being asked to leave the program, she also lost access to Suboxone, a drug used to treat opioid addiction, over the concern that it could harm the baby.

Like Kostoff, pregnant or postpartum women struggling with opioid addiction have few options when it comes to SUD treatment and addiction meds. Lynn Paltrow, the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, says these women should have the right to use addiction meds. “We have to ensure that people have access where there are medications like methadone, buprenorphine, Subutex, to those services, not only because it might benefit the future child but because it benefits the person herself.”

This type of approach would also give women less reason to hesitate from seeking help, advocates say. Though others say there’s still the potential for abuse with drugs like Suboxone and methadone.

“Most people think, ‘How could you not stop with a baby in your belly?’” Kostoff told the Washington Post. “But the physical cravings, the mental cravings, they take over despite what’s going on with your body.”

After leaving rehab, Kostoff ended up at the Women and Infant Substance Help Center at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital, where she was provided the addiction meds to help her through heroin withdrawal. She gave birth to Rikki Lynn last April, who showed some signs of drug withdrawal but is “otherwise healthy.”

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr