Helping the Helpless: Fighting Hampton Roads’ Heroin Epidemic

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) -- Every 25 minutes in the United States, a baby is born addicted to drugs, according to the latest federal statistics.

These newborn babies are victims of a growing epidemic. According to the Virginia Health Department, newborns suffering withdrawal symptoms have more than quadrupled in the Commonwealth.

But there is help -- and it's happening right here in Hampton Roads.

The Southeastern Family Project is a facility that rehabs new mothers, expecting mothers, and their babies. It is a program of the Hampton Newport News Community Services Board, which offers a multitude of programs for those dealing with addiction. It is a 16-bed facility that houses new mothers and pregnant mothers like Chelsea Johns from Norfolk. She has two children waiting for her at home while she battles her heroin addiction.

"It's really hard, it's the hardest thing about being here. I've never been away from my kids before," said Johns. "It's a sickness and it's not something you want to do, but there is help."

The women work with counselors, program managers, and medical staff. It is a residential treatment program and women come into treatment from a variety of settings, including court cases or self-admitted. The program provides the women basic needs, including necessities needed for their babies.

"Education is a really, really big component to what we do to help the women meet the needs of these babies who may be in withdrawal," said Patty Hartigan the Director of Substance Abuse Services. "Addiction does not discriminate, anyone can become addicted to alcohol, marijuana, cocaine or opiates. What we see with opiates is that a lot of people start off with a legitimate prescription from a doctor and that leads to addiction to other opiates or in some cases, heroin."

Most women stay 60 days after delivery - through a program funded by Medicaid.

"We are definitely available to help women during the pregnancy and postpartum period to address addiction," said Hartigan. "When women are pregnant and they are in active addiction, I think that particularly is stigmatizing for people because people wonder why didn't that women get treatment? And, why didn't she stop using if she knows she's pregnant? Sometimes it's not that easy. Pregnancy doesn't cure addiction."

The growing drug issue is now a public health emergency, according to Governor Terry McAuliffe. Drugs don't discriminate - they prey on the wealthy, the weak, the student, even newborns.

In the case of Alethea Lambert, she lost her government job when she fell victim to drug addiction. She was arrested a dozen times and had four felony convictions. "I was pulled out of my jail cell at Hampton City jail and they told me they had some news for me," said Lambert. "They told me that my mother had died. I thought back to so many nights I wanted to go home, be there for my family, so many times I wanted to be home for the holidays; the drugs called and I had to listen."

She listened to the calls for crack cocaine for two decades.

"I abandoned three children and disappointed myself and my family members," said Lambert. "Addiction does not discriminate, it does not matter who you are, where you come from, what educational credentials you have under your hat; it can tap in at time."

The death of her mother prompted her to make a change - and it started in Newport News. The facility had a different name two decades ago, but today it's the Southeastern Family Project. And today, Alethea is clean, a face of recovery and a peer recovery specialist.

"It took time, and willingness and courageousness on my part as it does for all of us in recovery, it's not an easy transition." said Lambert. "My desire to be in recovery became greater than my discovery to use. I have this disease for the rest of my life and I have to make that choice every single day."

According to the U.S. Surgeon General's report, there are more people with substance abuse disorders than people with cancer. And substance abuse disorders cost the U.S. more than $420 billion a year. Part of that money goes towards rehabbing the most innocent - and most vulnerable victims of the war on drugs: newborns.

Newborns suffering withdrawal symptoms has more than quadrupled in the last decade across the country and in Virginia, according to the health department. In the year 2000 there were 72 babies were born addicted in Virginia and in 2015 there were 542 newborns and it's grown since.

Kathryn Robertson, 26, is living at the Southeastern Family Project with her baby, Jaxton. Jaxton was born suffering from withdrawal and addicted to methadone, the opiate his mother used to stay away from heroin while in jail. "It's so hard to not only know that you caused that but I can relate. I know how he feels, I know what he's going through, I know how bad it hurts and he can't even understand it," said Robertson.

Babies like Jaxton, who are born withdrawing, can suffer tremors, sweats, excessive crying. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, symptoms of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome often begin within one to three days after birth, but may take up to a week to appear. Because of this, the baby will most often need to stay in the hospital for observation and monitoring for up to a week. Symptoms include, but are not limited to, seizures, rapid breathing, irritability, diarrhea, blotchy skin, sleep problems, slow weight gain, fever, poor feeding and increase muscle tone.

It took three weeks for Jaxton to detox, which is one of the reasons mother and baby live here at the Southeastern Family Project. Luckily for Kathryn and Jaxton, after his detox he is healthy and did not suffer excessive withdrawal symptoms as many babies do.

"Sometimes I feel guilty," said Robertson. "He did well. There were certain things like tremors, he would shake and sweat like a normal person detoxing. It's difficult to watch. But I got lucky because he's healthy now. One of the staff here calls him the Myth buster."

Robertson has four days left in the program. Her fear right now is going back to jail and being forced away from Jaxton; she still faces drug charges. Her court day is one week away. "I plan on possibly doing day treatment for a while because you have such a structured environment here and when you leave you don't have that structure. My mother is going to provide it the best that she can. I need to focus on myself and being a new mom and my sobriety," said Robertson.

"You could be sitting beside someone in the church pew, you could be standing in line with someone at the bank, it could be one of your co-workers. You don't know who is experiencing addiction and you don't know who is recovering from addiction," said Lambert.


This battle is not one you have to fight alone. There's help:

Hampton Newport News Community Services Board

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:
Southeastern Virginia Family Project:
Virginia National Substance Abuse Index:
Virginia Opiod oversode and Naloxone Training:
Virginia Department of Health:
Norfolk Substance Abuse Treatment Centers:
Virginia Beach Outpatient Treatment:
Mental Health of Virginia Resources:
Opiate Addiction and Resource Center:
Addiction Center Cost of Drug and Alcohol Addiction:

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