HIBBING — A St. Louis County program that assists pregnant women addicted to alcohol or other drugs received some national attention this winter.

Superior Babies, which serves women in northern St. Louis County, received the 2013 Emerging Practices Award from the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs.

The program is a collaboration between St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services Department and Arrowhead Center, Inc.

It follows women at high risk of having a baby born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) through her pregnancy up until the child’s second birthday.

It serves eight to 14 women at a time and has been operating for a decade.

The program has been run since its beginning by Public Health Nurse Diane Torrel and Carol Peterson, a licensed alcohol and drug counselor.

The two conduct home visits with families participating in the program. Both work with each client in the program to ensure she has a healthy pregnancy while staying substance free throughout the pregnancy and her baby’s infancy, said Julie Jagim, public health nurse supervisor.

Torrel and Peterson work with the clients to teach them about chemical dependency and addiction, to make sure they have adequate housing and to ensure that they are familiar with the resources available to them. They also teach their clients how to have a healthy pregnancy and about infant development.

“The goal is to have a healthy baby and promote good parenting and strong relationships in the family — mom, dad and baby,” Jagim said.

As a public health nurse, Torrel teaches about pregnancy, breast feeding, labor and delivery, and social and physical cues of infant development. She also does depression screenings before and after the pregnancy, Torrel said.

The counselor works on relapse prevention. Though Peterson is retiring, another counselor is being assigned to the program.

Both the nurse and counselor work to connect the client with community resources such as a mental health therapist, early Head Start, nutrition programs, Pregnancy Life Care Center and insurance if needed, Torrel said.

The program is free for participants, and women participate voluntarily. They are referred to Superior Babies by their doctors, other agencies, drug court, probation, or they step forward and request to participate on their own because they know they have a problem and want help, Jagim said.

Sometimes it is women who quit using or drinking when they find out about the pregnancy, but want support after the baby is born, Torrel said.

“Typically that’s when women are most at risk for going back to using their substance of choice,” she said.

The Superior Babies program was started in 1998 with a grant from the Department of Human Services to serve women in Duluth. The county has continued the program ever since with various other funding sources — eventually expanding to the north. The county has been able to maintain the program in northern St. Louis County due its partners and funding, Jagim said.

The most recent formal evaluation of the Superior Babies program was in 2010 and showed positive outcomes in a number of areas. That year, 31 babies were born to mothers in the program, and 96 percent of the babies had normal birth weight, achieved normal APGAR scores and tested negative on toxicology tests, according to a St. Louis County release.

Mothers in the program reported excellent relationships with Superior Babies staff. Additionally, 58 percent had completed parenting training, 21 percent ended involvement with child protection, 50 percent were using mental health services and 42 percent were in a 12-step program, according to the release.

The program is often successful during pregnancy, which is the whole goal of the program — to prevent prenatal exposure so the baby doesn’t have developmental delays or brain damage due to chemical exposure, Torrel said.

Superior Babies takes urine samples and uses the toxicology report as a tool to celebrate negative results as an example of a woman meeting her goals, she said

“We play that up and give them an incentive of some kind,” she said. “… We want to celebrate with her that she’s doing the right thing and is sober, and that we want to support that.”

If a sample is negative, it’s a chance for Torrel and the counselor to assess the client and determine whether meetings or treatment are needed.

The home visits involved with the program also make a difference, Torrel said.

“You’re on their playing field. They have to welcome you into their house,” she said. “… I think a lot of what works is just the relationship that we build.”

Two formal reviews of the program have shown good outcomes — with babies born to women in the program being born on time and having good birth weights.

For the most part, the women have been able to stay clean and sober, Jagim said.

Torrel said the positive reviews and national recognition show that support matters for women with addiction, who may not have sober support within their family or group of friends.

“I don’t know of a woman yet who wants to do harm to her baby,” Torrel said. “It’s an addiction, and they need a little more support.”

•••

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder

FASDs are a group of conditions that can occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. These conditions can affect each person in different ways, and can range from mild to severe. They can include physical problems and problems with behavior and learning.

Signs and Symptoms of an FASD:

• Abnormal facial features, such as a smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip

• Small head size

• Shorter-than-average height

• Low body weight

• Poor coordination

• Hyperactive behavior

• Difficulty paying attention

• Poor memory

• Difficulty in school (especially with math)

• Learning disabilities

• Speech and language delays

• Intellectual disability or low IQ

• Poor reasoning and judgment skills

• Sleep and sucking problems as a baby

• Vision or hearing problems

• Problems with the heart, kidneys, or bones

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website

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