Local program aims to treat expecting mothers struggling with drug abuse

HOLLYWOOD, FLA. (WSVN) - A South Florida healthcare program is showcasing a life-saving trend by treating the youngest victims of the state’s drug epidemic before they are even born.

7News spoke with Joanna Smith, a recovering addict whose 4-month-old son, Jackson, may have been facing a grim future if it were not for the treatment program offered by Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood. “I have a healthy baby. I’m so grateful to have him,” she said.

Smith said she had been addicted to pills and heroine. “I would put that needle into my arm, and I could not stop,” she said.

Things were rough for Smith when she found out she was pregnant, and she relapsed. “It was heartbreaking, you know. I thought I could do it one time, and I would be OK,” she said. “I was aware of what I was doing, but I couldn’t stop.”

From 2008 to 2013, the rate of babies born in Florida addicted to drugs increased by 168 percent. The predominant drugs of choice are heroine and opiate painkillers.

Memorial Behavioral Health Services spokesperson Claudia Vicencio said withdrawal is excruciating for the infants. “I’ve talked to neonatal ICU nurses that say you never forget the cry of a baby who is detoxing,” she said.

The number of babies born with NAS, or neonatal abstinence syndrome, has also increased, and the costs to treat them is high. “This is really a cost to the taxpayer,” said Vicencio, “because the majority of these babies are under Medicaid, a state-subsidized care. It’s coming out of our pockets.”

The average hospital stay for an addicted infant is three weeks, and the cost is upwards of $67,000.

Memorial Healthcare System saw the problem and created a program to help women get clean while pregnant, a rare practice in healthcare. “We’ve had 32 women in the year since we’ve had the program, and we’ve had 16 babies born drug free,” said Vicencio.

Miami-Dade also has two facilities that specialize in detoxing pregnant mothers with great success.

Jackson and his mother are now living in the Susan B. Anthony Residential Treatment Center, where they receive counseling in hopes they have a better chance at success. “I’m sober, and I’m actually doing what I’ve been wanting to do the whole time: be present in my children’s lives,” said Smith.

Organizers hope this program expands to other facilities.

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