In a grim indicator of the toll the opioid crisis is taking on children, a program is being launched in Massachusetts specifically to help newborns, infants, and toddlers with addicted parents.
Health officials say they believe it’s the first such early-intervention program in the state to target these children, some of whom were born drug-addicted.
The government-funded initiative will pay for weekly home visits to 36 low-income families in New Bedford, a South Coast community where the number of children born with opiates in their bloodstreams is four times the state average.
Part of the federal Early Head Start program, it will provide educational, nutritional, and nursing services to children and their families, as well as prenatal care and parental coaching. Families struggling with addiction will receive preferential enrollment.
The goal is to reverse the damaging developmental effects that can result from addiction and parental abuse or neglect, and ultimately end the cascade of problems often passed from drug-abusing parents to children and grandchildren.
“This is an issue that affects generation after generation after generation,” said John Kelly, president of Meeting Street, a Providence-based nonprofit that will run the program. “We look at this as an opportunity to make sure it’s not a multi-generational issue, because you can halt it with this new child and make sure the child gets on the right track.”
With opioids now killing more than 130 people a month in Massachusetts, and many hospitals inundated with nonfatal overdoses, children are often collateral damage.
Some end up orphaned, living with relatives, or in foster care. Many are born with an array of symptoms, such as birth defects and developmental problems, that occur in babies exposed to opiates in the womb. Others are spared physical or mental difficulties, but suffer the consequences of neglectful parenting by mothers and fathers struggling with drug abuse.
To address the problem statewide, Governor Charlie Baker approved a sweeping law last year that places tighter controls on opioids, but the ripple effects of the ongoing crisis continue to affect countless families.
Those selected for the New Bedford program will receive an in-home visit of at least 90 minutes each week from a member of Meeting Street’s staff. The organization is hiring five staffers for the program, including three case workers, who will work with 12 families apiece. Home visits are expected to begin next month.
Meeting Street also runs three schools and one early childhood center where drug-affected families can receive services, but it says visiting clients’ homes allows a level of personalization not possible in a group setting.
“With in-home visits, we’re able to be more intimate with families and really get to know their routines,” said Casey Ferrara, director of early intervention. “The beauty of being able to get into someone’s home is that we can see what’s going on there and build up a trusting relationship.”
During the visits, case workers will assess families’ needs and connect them with appropriate services, from social workers to educators to nurses to disability specialists.
The program, paid for by a $324,000 federal grant distributed by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, will also give special consideration to children suffering from abuse or neglect of any kind.
Still, Kelly said, “if you’ve got an opiate issue, you’re going to go right to the top of the list.”