New SC bill could curb drug addiction in newborns - FOX Carolina 21

New SC bill could curb drug addiction in newborns

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The nation has a growing problem with addiction and abuse of opioid drugs, which include heroin, morphine and prescription pain relievers.  And that addiction, is impacting the most vulnerable of our population: infants both before and after birth.    
But a new bill in South Carolina could help those moms struggling with addiction, and make sure their babies are safe and cared for.

The legislation follows a requirement from the federal government, mandating that states have clear laws in place when it comes to reporting and taking care of infants affected by substance abuse.

The latest numbers on babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome,  or NAS, which happens when a baby is exposed to drugs before birth, come from the South Carolina Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office, which tracks hospital billing data in the state.

In 2013, six in every 1,000 births were diagnosed with NAS.  That number went up to seven in every 1,000 births in 2014 and 2015.
But a new bill introduced in the South Carolina Senate in late February, may help reverse that trend, and get moms and their babies the resources they need.

Tricia Lykens is the mother of 2 year old Jaxson.  He's a healthy and happy toddler now, but it wasn't always that way.  Tricia used methamphetamine during her pregnancy.

"It was a lot of guilt because I thought I was, I knew I was hurting him, but I didn't know how not to do the drugs."

Because of her addiction, Tricia often skipped out on her prenatal appointments. She even waited until the very last minute to go to the hospital for delivery.  "He went through some withdrawals, but overall he was healthy."

DSS eventually got involved, and he was taken away from her for a short time.  She worked with her DSS caseworker to find help, and discovered Serenity Place, a residential treatment center in Greenville for pregnant women and mothers.  The program is unique, in that they keep recovering moms and their babies together during treatment.

"This program saved my life and the lives of my children.  This program is what gave me foundation to put my family back together."

Kimbley Smith is the Executive Director of Serenity Place and said Tricia's story is becoming all too familiar.

"I think it's a bigger problem than people want to admit and I also think that it makes it very difficult for the mother because there is that immediate judgment, and that, just that really harsh judgment people give."

Another issue is that many of these pregnant mothers who are using, don't want to ask for help because they're scared of what might happen.

Right now, DSS and lawmakers at the Statehouse are working together, to make sure those moms and babies get help and services, and that health care professionals know when to alert DSS that there's a problem.

Karen Wingo is with DSS and said,  "This bill is one that's aimed to address the problem of drug exposed infants.  It really is intended to address the opioid crisis by clarifying what the circumstances are, under which healthcare professionals have to report if an infant has been exposed to or has been affected by alcohol or drugs."

S447 was filed in late February and clarifies when it's required to report that an infant or fetus is exposed to drugs or alcohol.

The bill would also put the state in compliance with the federal law, which says states must have policies in place that require healthcare workers who discover an infant is affected by substance abuse, to report it to child protective services.

Senator Tom Young is one of the sponsors of the bill and said this is legislation that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are getting behind.

"It's just a bill that's intended to try and protect the most innocent in our society, which are these infants who are exposed, due to no choice of their own, to illegal drugs and alcohol."

Many medical professionals are also voicing their support for the bill.  Dr. Olga Rosa is a Child Abuse Pediatrician and is the South Carolina Children's Advocacy Medical Response System Director.

"I think it will breach the concern that both maternal physicians, obstetric physicians, nurse practitioners or family practice physicians that deliver babies or take care of pregnant women have. What to do, what is my responsibility? How can I connect or collaborate and get information about my patient to other providers, so we can have a cohesive responsive to the needs of this mom."

Dr. Rosa was part of the work group that helped draft the new legislation.  She makes it clear, the bill is about getting help for mom and baby, and not about turning mothers over to law enforcement.

"Making the call about the baby that has been affected because of exposure to the drugs does not actually mean an investigation would be open into abuse and neglect or an automatic report to law enforcement. That is not with this legislation does."

She says though, that would change, if a mom does not follow the substance abuse treatment plan.

"Law enforcement will come in if there is a suspicion that abuse or neglect is occurring. So if the mom is not actually following the plans of care or the plan of care for her own substance use disorder, that's when then the landscape will change and there could be a possible investigation."

Dr. Rosa said the bill is really about a change in approach when it comes pregnant mothers battling substance abuse and how their babies are taken care of.

"I have great hopes for the coordination and collaboration of services, so it's not piecemeal and nothing falls through the cracks. That's what we need to avoid, the falling through the cracks of a baby that may have been affected and then something happens and we have a dead baby."

As for the bill in Columbia right now, Senator Young said there should be a committee hearing for it in the coming weeks.  He expects it will be passed into law this year.

There is pressure to get it passed this session.  That's because states are required to have their plan of compliance submitted to the federal government by the end of June, or future funding could be affected and they could also receive penalties.

The federal law also requires that states must track and report the number of infants born and affected by substance abuse, so those new numbers should start being reported in 2018.

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