First Lady Tammy Murphy and several state lawmakers and officials met in Mercer County today with women enrolled in For My Baby and Me, a unique community collaboration that promises to improve the long-term recovery and health outcomes of two vulnerable populations – pregnant women/new mothers struggling with addiction who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, and their babies.
Catholic Charities is one of six community partners that work together to deliver specialized, outpatient care to that overlooked demographic. The others are Capital Health; HomeFront; the Rescue Mission of Trenton; the Henry J. Austin Health Center; and the Trenton Health Team.
A statewide concern
Mrs. Murphy wanted to learn more about the program because improving maternal and infant health statewide is one of her top concerns. Last month, she launched Nurture NJ, an awareness campaign that aims to reduce infant and maternal mortality and morbidity and ensure equitable maternal and infant care among women and children of all races and ethnicities.
During an hourlong roundtable discussion today at HomeFront’s Family Campus in Ewing, where the women in the program live, Mrs. Murphy sat captivated as four program participants talked about how they fell into addiction – and how they found help through For My Baby and Me.
“I was a functional addict – I was going to college, I was working still,” Danyielle (pictured, right) said. “But I wasn’t happy. I was five months pregnant and still smoking (marijuana).”
She’s been drug-free for several months and has found life-saving support and camaraderie from other program participants.
“I can honestly say I’m happy now,” she said, as she smiled at other mothers beside her and soothed a friend’s newborn napping on her chest. “This group of girls, they’re like my family now. If I’m going through something, I call one of them before I call my mom or my dad, because I know they understand my struggle more than my parents, who haven’t been through this.”
She patted her belly and added: “Just being here made me want to be clean. I’m overdue (to give birth), and I can’t wait till she gets here so I can show her I’m clean and I did all this for her.”
A unique collaboration
For My Baby and Me launched in December 2017. It’s the first and only program to treat addiction in pregnant women in Mercer County, and unique statewide in its collaborative, holistic approach that concurrently addresses social determinants of health, early childhood development, and recovery housing in addition to medication-assisted treatment and clinical services.
The program was designed to remove barriers to recovery and address every need of each program participant, to ensure their long-term success. Participants receive safe housing; food/clothing; drug treatment (including medicine to treat withdrawal); clinical services; educational and employment support; child care; legal assistance; transportation; and other support services.
Before this program existed, said Susan Loughery, Catholic Charities’ director of operations, providers would start with this question when plotting care: “Whose patient is this?”
But under the For My Baby and Me collaborative, Loughery said, “the answer is: This patient and her baby are everyone’s patient. We looked to design a program that incorporated the vision of the ‘easy button.’ So instead of having referrals and handoffs, we opted for a collaborative, clinical treatment pathway” to meet a patient’s every need in one program.
Although it’s just over a year old, the program has proven to be successful by many measures. For example, babies born to moms in the program have shorter stays in the neonatal intensive care unit. Family unification also is a goal, and indeed, mothers in the program are more likely to leave the hospital with their child.
“Bottom line, these ladies are testing clean,” said Sheila Addison, director of HomeFront’s Family Preservation Center. “That shows the program is working.”
“I’ve been clean for seven months,” she said, prompting applause around the room. “It’s a blessing to have so much support around me. I’m blessed every day. I’m blessed to be sober. And I’m blessed to have a place to lay my head at night – and that plays a big role, homelessness and running the streets, living that lifestyle. All this here helped me get out of that.”
Three months ago, Tanicqua gave birth to twins who “probably wouldn’t be here right now” without For My Baby and Me.
“I’m a wonderful mother. I love my babies. I’m happy that I’m clean,” she said, adding that she’s now studying to become a home health aide. “Every day, I come back to this building. I got my own keys to my own room. I love taking care of my children.”
Hope is contagious
For Mrs. Murphy, such sentiments offered persuasive evidence that the program works.
“It takes a village to make things happen, and you all are proving that it’s happening,” she said, telling program participants: “I’m really impressed by you all.”
Marlene Laó-Collins, Catholic Charities executive director, said hearing the women’s stories also helps highlight obstacles – such as New Jersey’s shortage of affordable housing – that can thwart recovery.
“Housing is key,” she said. “It’s fundamental, in terms of ensuring that they continue to thrive – and their children, as well.”
Lawmakers who attended today’s gathering vowed to find ways to support the program.
“I see the hope in everybody’s eyes here. That’s contagious,” Assemblyman Anthony Verrelli (pictured, left) said.
Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson agreed: “You empower us to know what we’re fighting for. We have to go back and ask for funding to keep programs like this alive. You embolden us and you make us powerful because we’ve heard your stories.”
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