Pregnant Delaware offenders find alternative in new home

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NEWARK , Del. (AP) — After serving time in Baylor Women's Correctional Institution on drug charges, Jessica Hudson relapsed and began using opiates again.

She failed five drug tests before landing back in prison last October for violating the terms of her probation, she said.

Six months pregnant, Hudson, 26, worried about having her first baby behind bars, with no one in the delivery room but a prison guard.

"Waiting to go to court was like a ticking time bomb," she said. "You don't know what's going to happen."

The criminal justice system has long struggled with how to best handle pregnant female offenders who use drugs.

Delaware judges often sentence these women to prison for the duration of their pregnancy — no matter how serious their crime — knowing that inside they'll get clean and receive the medical care needed for a healthy baby.

Baylor prison averages 11 to 20 pregnant inmates a week, with three-quarters of them dealing with an addiction to opiates or other substances, according to corrections officials.

The state Department of Correction recently sought an alternative to detention for those with less serious charges.

They wanted a high level of supervision and addiction treatment in the community, away from the physical and emotional stress of prison. Giving mother and infant time to bond not only gives the baby a stronger start but becomes an incentive for mom to stay clean.

The corrections department worked with its healthcare provider, Connections Community Support Programs, to create New Expectations — a group home in Newark for such expectant or new mothers recovering from addiction.

"It's much better than sending these ladies to prison," Correction Commissioner Robert Coupe said. "Especially the ones where the court is incarcerating them just to protect the child. That's why we feel a program like this was needed."

A judge can sentence women to New Expectations as a condition of probation, in lieu of house arrest or incarceration. If she qualifies, a probationer may also voluntarily enroll, typically at the suggestion of her probation officer, said Jim Welch, bureau chief of correctional healthcare services for the corrections department.

New Expectations won't admit women convicted of crimes involving violence or children, or those with behavioral issues, Coupe said.

Once in the program, they report to a probation officer weekly and submit to random drug tests. The home is monitored 24-7 by Connections staff, and the women may not leave the home unsupervised, smoke or hold money in the house. It's a lot of rules, but it's not prison.

The women see an obstetrician regularly, receive prenatal care and outpatient substance abuse treatment. They take parenting and life-skills classes to ready them for life beyond the program.

"For some of these women, it's not just learning how to stay substance free but learning how to be a mom," said Frances Carlin, Connections' clinical director for behavioral health.

The women also benefit from contact with family and friends, receiving visitors one night a week and on Saturdays.

"The goal here is long-term recovery," Walters said. "We hope with preparation and support that she'll stay out of prison the rest of her life."

The supervision is intense, but 25-year-old Erin Jacobs is glad she was sentenced to the house after violating probation by failing a drug test. Jacobs is expecting a baby boy in April.

"They were going to give me Level 3 probation, but I knew if I did that I'd just mess up again. When you're on drugs it's really hard to know your priorities," Jacobs said.

"This will be a new start away from the people that I was with before, and a chance to be around other girls who also want to be clean."

The New Expectations home sits on a residential block off Chapel Street. The facility formerly hosted the Emmaus House, a shelter for homeless families. Emmaus House closed at the end of October, and New Expectations opened Nov. 1.

In its first year, the $289,000 budget is supported by a mix of grant money, private donations and a portion of the state's behavioral health contract with Connections, officials said.

Six women have participated in the program. Three didn't make it — kicked out for violating house rules, such as leaving the premises without permission or failing a drug test. They were taken into custody, said Jason Miller, a corrections spokesman.

The house can accommodate up to 17 women and infants. For now, each has her own room. Women can stay up to six months after birth as they save money, find housing and work.

Women who go into labor while at Baylor prison usually deliver at St. Francis or Christiana hospital but must return to Baylor afterward, separated from the infant. The baby is usually handed off to a family member or foster care, which often isn't best for its development, Welch said.

"Multiple scientific studies say those first few months are important to both mom and the child to bond," he said. "Close, physical proximity with the mother — that will not happen if you are in prison."

Hudson gave birth to a daughter by cesarean section a week ago. Both mama and baby returned to New Expectations on Sunday.

Hudson's daughter was healthy, but New Expectations babies could enter the world with a dependency or neonatal abstinence syndrome, if the mother heavily used opiates such as heroin, codeine or oxycodone.

"We keep babies in the hospital long enough to ensure they don't need medication," said Dr. Deborah Tuttle, a neonatologist with Christiana Care Health System.

It is safe for moms on methadone to breast-feed. Tuttle encourages women to employ such healthy practices but acknowledges that moms in recovery might need to take time to readjust their lifestyles.

New Expectations has funding for up to three years. Since the home opened in November, corrections officials have briefed judges, so that they know the alternative is available, Coupe said. He toured the facility last week and spent some time talking to Jacobs, he said.

"I told her, you're a pioneer. If you get through and you're successful, that's what going to build the confidence of the courts," Coupe said.


Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del.,

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