In the nine months Jennifer Stanert carried her son Alec Carrasco, she promised herself with every hit she’d ditch her methamphetamine addiction in a few days.
But when she didn’t fulfill her promise and found herself high and in labor two weeks early on a January morning in 2017, she feared the worst — going to the hospital, testing positive for drugs and losing her baby.
“I was scared. I didn’t want to give them my ID; I didn’t want them to know who I was,” Stanert, now nearly eight months sober, said on a recent Thursday in her home. “I changed my last name; I gave them my boyfriend’s last name so they wouldn’t find me in the system. I was running out of options.”
Little Alec was born in withdrawal with a condition called NAS, short for neonatal abstinence syndrome. A 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of 28 states found on average, six in 1,000 babies were born with NAS in 2013, up from 1.5 in 1,000 in 1999.
Nevada’s rate at the time was 4.8 in 1,000 babies born addicted.
In the past five years, that rate has been on the rise, perhaps due to the increasing use and misuse of opioids, said Dr. Deepa Nagar, medical director of the NICU at Dignity Health St. Rose Dominican Hospital’s Siena campus.
“This is a new epidemic that is spreading throughout the country, and the education for the physicians and the medical staff is relatively new,” Nagar said. “That’s a big barrier. We need everybody to have a better understanding of it.”
Connecting moms with care
Witnessing the growing problem in their own workplace, Nagar and her colleague, NICU and pediatrics clinical pharmacist Andria Peterson, decided to try to determine how they could help connect moms to whatever addiction treatment, therapy, parenting classes or case management services they may need earlier in their pregnancies to keep another baby from being born with NAS.
Three years later, the EMPOWERED program was born.
EMPOWERED, which stands for Empower Mothers for Positive Outcomes With Education, Recovery and Early Development, was recently launched at Dignity Health St. Rose Dominican in June with the help of a $356,000 Nevada State Targeted Response Grant. Moms seeking help on their own or through their doctors or loved ones can call the program’s phone line to get connected.
“There are a lot of people doing a really, really great job, and so again, it’s really just to establish what medication is going to work best for Mom, what area of town does she live in, does she need mental health support in addiction, so that we can outreach to those already-existing services that are really serving our community well,” Peterson said.
Most importantly, those who call are significantly less likely to receive a punitive response, as Stanert did.
Child Protective Services took Stanert’s son and placed him in foster care after a nine-day stint in the neonatal intensive care unit. It was the first time, Stanert said, in 21 years of on-and-off using and after giving birth to five other children, that Stanert left the hospital without her newest addition.
Symptoms of withdrawal in babies can range from high-pitched crying and irritability, to poor feeding, seizures and death. Babies can be in intensive care for a few days, up to a few months, Nagar said.
Brain scans in adults show drug use can lead to a brain that resembles Swiss cheese, Nagar said. What that means for a child’s developing brain is anyone’s best guess — doctors don’t know yet, Nagar said.
‘I was truly alone’
Stanert, now 38, avoided prenatal care while pregnant with Alec at the risk of being punished.
In the end, her baby faced the consequences. She teared up discussing the guilt she felt for putting her child in danger.
“When you’re going through it … you only think about yourself and you only see how you’re affected by it, and you think that other people should understand,” Stanert said. “But at the same time, that’s a life in there who had no choice, who was using without choice.”
At Stanert’s worst, she was living in an abandoned home without air conditioning or hot water and calling it her own. She stole food from continental breakfast buffets at local hotels, and showered at pools with outdoor rinsing stations.
She hid her pregnancy from everyone — even drug dealers, who were reluctant to sell to an expecting mom.
“That life is just so dark, because for me, I really was truly alone,” Stanert said.
Stanert, pregnant with a seventh child — Avery Carrasco, a boy now 5 months old — drove herself to WestCare’s detoxification center on Maryland Parkway in November. She entered a residential program for mothers and children through the national nonprofit, where she joined a Bible study and connected with support services such as Baby’s Bounty, a nonprofit that provides essentials, such as clothing, feeding bottles and a crib.
She later worked with a case manager from Child Protective Services to learn about child care through the Las Vegas Urban League, locate transitional housing and enter intensive outpatient therapy and parenting classes.
EMPOWERED aims to provide connection to similar resources before Child Protective Services needs to get involved, and before a baby is born.
Having that knowledge while pregnant would’ve been helpful, Stanert said, but only because she was ready to take her life back into her own hands. People need to be ready, she said.
But she admits she couldn’t raise Avery without the help of community resources.
“Sometimes, you feel so overwhelmed and you do feel helpless, that you need that outer intervention,” she said. “There’s just so many things I’m grateful for today.”
That includes a reunion with Alec, now nearly 18 months old. Stanert expects to regain custody of Alec in the coming days and plans to move from transitional housing into an apartment of her own. Her other children live with their dads or with their adoptive families, though she lost a son at 15 two years ago.
Soon, she said, she’ll start looking for work.
“It feels like I have purpose. I feel connected; I feel so much better about myself,” Stanert said. “I just want to keep going.”