Sabrina holds her newborn daughter Sept. 25 during a roundtable discussion on opioid abuse and CCBHCs at a Catholic Charities campus in Trenton. Photo courtesy of Dana DiFilippo
Sabrina holds her newborn daughter Sept. 25 during a roundtable discussion on opioid abuse and CCBHCs at a Catholic Charities campus in Trenton. Photo courtesy of Dana DiFilippo

By Jennifer Mauro | Managing Editor

Not too many months ago, Sabrina was pregnant and living in an abandoned house with her boyfriend. Both were using heroin, as they had been for the past six years.

Then, her boyfriend lost his leg from a heroin-related illness. The fear of losing him and the reality of her pregnancy spurred her to action. With the help of her mother and sister, Sabrina arrived at Catholic Charities’ ambulatory detox facility in Trenton. Thanks to CCDOT and its health system partners, her baby was born with no complications.

“[On Aug. 3], I brought my baby home, which was the greatest thing I could ever imagine,” the 30-year-old new mother said. “I don’t know what I would’ve done if my family hadn’t found this program … I’d probably be dead.”

Sabrina, with her sleeping baby bundled in her arms, shared her story Sept. 25 with Dr. Anthony Ferreri, regional director of U.S. Health and Human Services, who gathered in the Trenton facility for a roundtable discussion with more than 20 CCDOT staff and its community health system partners, which include Capital Health, the HomeFront shelter for women and children, the Rescue Mission Shelter of Trenton and more.

Ferreri’s visit came on the heels of the recent announcement that CCDOT had received a two-year, $4 million federal grant to expand its Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic program. CCBHCs are a new provider type in Medicaid that targets people with mental health and substance abuse disorders who historically have been excluded from care. An overarching goal is to make sure they get treated in community-based settings with providers partnering for holistic care.

Community collaboration helps ensure a one-stop shopping approach so clients get needs met that one agency alone can’t handle. For example, CCDOT’s CCBHC provides a client addiction recovery treatment, mental health help, employment assistance and an on-site pharmacy.

“We’re dealing with one of the greatest crises the U.S. has faced in its history,” Ferreri said, offering a slideshow presentation that included statistics of overdose deaths, HHS initiatives in development, projected opioid funding in President Trump’s 2019 fiscal budget and more.

Also included was information on neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), which occurs when a baby is exposed to drugs in the womb. Since 2008, the number of babies with NAS has increased steadily from a little less than 10,000 to 25,000 as of 2016. Outcomes of opioids in the womb include prematurity, stunted growth and death in a fetus, to low birthweight and smaller skulls in a newborn. In a child, NAS can lead to developmental disorders.

Sabrina began treatment for drug abuse early in her pregnancy. As such, her daughter was only on a withdrawal medication for two weeks after birth and is healthy.

Ferreri also drew attention to the fact that much of the information being presented was more than a year old.

“A lot of data we’re working with is one to three years old. We need better data to make decisions that are going to save lives now,” he said, adding that there are efforts underway at the federal level to get more up-to-date information. “This is not a partisan effort. This is about helping Americans the best way we know how.”

Marlene Laó-Collins, executive director of Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton, stressed the importance of having the most recent data available.

“For us, it’s important to understand who’s coming in the door, what happened and the outcome,” she said. “Plus, more timely information helps policymakers and politicians make better decisions.

The federal grant, she said, will help with that effort, too, helping fund improved technology to better link CCDOT and the community partners. This linking will allow each organization to track clients on their health care journey.

“Hopefully, the federal government sees this as an important program,” she said. “This collaboration saves dollars, keeps people out of emergency rooms.”

Indeed, it was this teamwork that helped Sabrina. Many hospitals turned her away when they found out she was pregnant, not wanting the liability of complications that come with caring for a pregnant woman trying to detox. In April, she was taken under the wing of Capital Health’s HealthStart prenatal clinic. HomeFront helped with residential care, and is currently helping organize Sabrina’s wedding to her boyfriend, now-fiancé, who’s she’s known since her early teens. CCBHC is such a part of her daily life that when it was time for the baby to be born, her water broke in the CCDOT clinic.

“I know I did all of the hardest work,” she said, acknowledging that those who struggle with addiction must make the first step to get help. “You’ve got to do it for yourself. If you really don’t want it, it won’t work. It has to be you first.”

Once a person is ready, however, “Call here. Get in contact with Catholic Charities,” she said. “If it wasn’t for everybody’s help, I wouldn’t be here. I have a healthy baby now.”