New Program Reaches Out To Drug Addicted Pregnant Women

May 30, 2018

Some members of the perinatal substance use treatment care team. From left to right: Dr. Alison Rentz, Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine at St. Vincnet Healthcare; RN Vicki Birkeland, Nursing Director, Women's & Children's Services at St. Vincent Healthcare; Kassie Runsabove, health disparities coordinator at St. Vincent Healthcare; and Maria Russel, a licensed social worker and Northern Cheyenne Maternal Outreach
Credit Jackie Yamanaka

The Northern Cheyenne tribe and St. Vincent Healthcare are partners in a new program that changes the way pregnant women, suffering from addiction, are treated.  Instead of being greeted with blame and punishment these women are being met with support services.

Licensed social worker Maria Russel of Northern Cheyenne Maternal Outreach works with these women. She said they’re highly motivated to be the best mom for her children, but sometimes addiction gets in the way.

“Addiction is about pain,” she said. “And we’re talking about a lot of pain, a lot of trauma.”

So instead of immediately blaming and arresting the woman and removing the child or children from the home, Russel said she’s met where she is at.

Russel was hired under the Northern Cheyenne Tribe’s new program known as “Blessing New Spirits” program.

“The thought behind it is a Cheyenne tradition of this is a new spirit coming and how are we going to greet that and bring this new spirit into the world,” she said.

Russel said they’re working to create a cultural shift between the medical community and addicted moms.

“If we can support mothers with their children, that’s our first love relationship,” she said. “No one will ever replace a mom, no matter what. And if we can support them and build them up then we have lifelong healing in the family.”

Dr. Alison Rentz specializes in pediatric neonatal-perinatal medicine at St.Vincent Healthcare. She said the baby can’t be treated in isolation, rather it’s also about the immediate and extended family.

“It’s a complete paradigm shift in the medical community from how we used to care for it which was a lot of judgement, criminal proceedings, things are really not effective. That are not going to get to the root of the problem, have a lifelong good outcome for the baby, for the mother, for the extended family” said Dr. Rentz.

She said now the medical community is viewing the pending birth of a child as a potential catalyst for change.

“I have seen personally over the last 3 or 4 years many instances where we’ve had honest conversations with the mother, nothing to do with Child Protective Services,” She said. “Just, ‘We want to help you. We want you to talk to us and tell us how we can help you move forward so you can be the mother you want to be.’”

Dr. Rentz said she didn’t know of a mother who was purposely trying to harm their baby. Rather she said they didn’t have the support they need. She said this paradigm shift has positively improved outcomes for their newborns.

Governor Steve Bullock was briefed on the new perinatal substance use treatment project during a visit to St. Vincent Healthcare. He said he recently traveled to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and heard about this project.

Bullock hoped others across Montana could learn lessons from this program. He cited statistics that of the 3,000 children in Montana’s foster care system over 60% were removed from their families because of parental substance abuse.

“We can get numb by statistics,” Bullock said. “Yet something must be done and something is being done and it gives me great hope.”