An Albuquerque police officer was honored in front of the whole country during the State of the Union address earlier this week. While on duty, he met a woman who was addicted to heroin and adopted her baby. More and more pregnant women are struggling with addiction in the state. But attitudes can be harsh, services are limited and funding is tight, leaving people with nowhere to turn.
When Albuquerque Police Department Officer Ryan Holets found a couple shooting up behind a convenience store last year and noticed that the woman was pretty far along in her pregnancy, he was catching a glimpse of a much larger and more systemic problem in the state.
Jade Sanchez knows all about it. Years ago, she was in that same hard spot: pregnant and addicted and looking for help.
"People are like: Don’t drink caffeine and soda and things like that while you’re pregnant," she said. "You can imagine what people think of somebody who’s strung out on heroin, you know, and it’s a daily habit. It definitely doesn’t motivate somebody to change or try and help them to get out of that position for sure."
There are other complicating factors, too: Physical symptoms of withdrawal that are miserable and dangerous for both the mother and the baby, for one. Plus, Sanchez added, there’s a high likelihood that you’re experiencing homelessness or you're in an unsafe living situation. If you’re in a relationship, she said, it’s probably not the healthiest one.
But the hardest part for her was the shame. "As a woman and as a mother, it’s just this natural feeling in you to want to care for your unborn child," she said. "And when you know that you can’t, you’re not doing that to the best of your ability, it can be heartbreaking and really really hard to deal with."
After running up against judgment and humiliation while seeking services, Sanchez found the Milagro Clinic in Albuquerque, which helps pregnant women detox safely. She gave birth to her son. "I still feel like it was just a miracle," she said. "I was so proud of myself. Not many people get to make it out of that. And so that’s why it’s kind of like my mission now."
She found a sanctuary at the Amity Foundation, a therapeutic community for women, where she works now as an intensive case manager helping other women. And she received long-term care for herself and her child at the Focus program at the University of New Mexico.
That’s where she met Dr. Andrew Hsi, a professor of pediatrics. "The needs of women who have substance use disorders I think are often quite different than men," he said, "and most of the treatment models are built on male model theories."
Hsi’s been working on this a long time: He helped found that Milagro Clinic back in 1989.
"The first and biggest thing the state needs is a general commitment to the idea that treatment can be very helpful for people with a substance use disorder, whether it’s methamphetamines or opioids or other substances," Hsi said.
The number of babies diagnosed as being born drug-dependent is rising all over New Mexico, and the rate has nearly doubled since 2011, according to Department of Health data. But Dr. Hsi said the stats probably underestimate the problem. "The rise in babies with Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal Syndrome in part has to do with how much opioid drugs are in the community," he said, "and I think, increasing awareness by providers about the severity of illness that babies can have when they go through withdrawal."
Dr. Hsi said everyone needs to get on the same page: obstetricians, family medicine doctors, nurses, midwives. He said the care for women with substance use disorders should standardized throughout the state. And that could prevent some of that poor treatment Sanchez described.
Micaela Cadena is research director with Young Women United. "They’re often told, you must love your drugs more than your kids, or if you loved your kids you would simply stop using," she said.
Cadena said it’s easy to ask: Why don’t women just get help? "But the thing is we understand and many know addiction is a disease, and without access and real access to health care and treatment that we are forgetting too many of these New Mexican families, and that this is something that happens every day on the regular."
In New Mexico, there aren’t that many places to go for detox and rehab if you’re pregnant. The limited programs are overburdened and overwhelmed, Cadena said. Those facilities are in bigger cities despite the rural nature of our state. And, Cadena added, there’s no inpatient residential center where women can bring their other children. "It’s time to do something about it," she said.
Jade Sanchez, the mom who made it through this already, has two recommendations for New Mexico if we want to see fewer situations like the one Officer Holets walked into: Drop the stigma, and create more treatment options for women.
Editor's Note: This story has been clarified to use the language "drug-dependent" for babies.