Babies born drug dependent: Local rehab group aims to combat growing crisis

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Sierra holds her daughter and stares into her eyes, promising to stay clean.

1112334“She just makes me want to get better and stay sober because I know she needs me,” Sierra says. “She’s my reason before I didn’t have a reason to get better.”

Sierra is a part of a Richmond rehab program. Her drug of choice? Crack cocaine. But she’s part of a growing trend here in the Commonwealth: Drug-addicted women giving birth and their babies born drug dependent.

The Richmond Behavioral Health Authority (RBHA), where Sierra is seeking help, says pregnant women seeking treatment is at an all-time high. Officials attribute this growing trend in large part to the opioid crisis, saying many of the referrals are for women hooked on prescription painkillers or heroin.

“We have had as many as 14 or 15 referrals in a month,” substance abuse clinician Madeline Berry said. “For instance, last week in one day we had three calls.”


8News gathered the following information from the Virginia All Payer Claims Database:

  • In 2011, 392 babies were diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), meaning they were exposed to drugs in the womb
  • In 2015, that number more than doubled to 807

Doctors and lawmakers tell 8News Investigator Kerri O’Brien they believe that number is vastly underestimated and that many more babies are going undiagnosed.

Lt. Governor Ralph Northman, who is also a pediatric neurologist, sees the consequences of this opioid crisis play out in the delivery room. “A lot of them are

capture64764746“A lot of them are premature,” Northam said.

And for the newborn, the result is heartbreaking.

“The infant will be very depressed, that means that they are not breathing, they have to be resuscitated,” Northam added.

The tiny babies go through withdrawal, trembling and wailing in distress. They often need medication. The long-term effects can be devastating.

“It impacts the child’s brain development, so we deal with these issues down the road with learning problems behavioral issues,” Northam explained.

As the Commonwealth tries to combat this epidemic, RBHA is trying to minimize the damage. Pregnant women get first priority for treatment jumping in front of long wait lists treatment.

“Certainly we know when women are pregnant it is a window of opportunity. They have a moment of clarity and often it is a time they really want to stop using substances,” Berry said.


In an effort to keep this sometimes overwhelmed group in treatment, RBHA is eliminating obstacles.

“I transport the clients coming here for group because we try to keep them engaged,” case manager Melodie Bradley told 8News.

c9afd0e563fb418b9f9fad12fde8a42cCase managers not only provides moms and moms-to-be a ride to rehab, but they also offer daycare.

“They come here, we give them snack so they don’t have to worry about the kids at all,” Bradley explained.

“It’s a really big relief,” Sierra said. “I know she is safe and I can be over there focused on getting sober and she can be here playing with other kids.”

Lt. Governor and Attorney General Mark Herring have been traveling around the Commonwealth holding roundtables talking with communities about how to tackle the opioid crisis.They are also working with doctors encouraging them to back off opioids when possible and focus on alternative means for treating pain.

This is a developing story. Stay with 8News online and on air for the latest updates.

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