Watch CBS News

Littlest victims of America's heroin epidemic

Children born to heroin-addicted mothers can face a range of problems, leaving families and health officials struggling to help
Heroin epidemic puts more newborns at risk 01:45

As America's heroin epidemic continues to grow, more hospital rooms are scrambling into action to help babies born into addiction. One of those babies is two-month-old Azaryah Jackson. A healthy infant now, her life began in rehab where her heroin-addicted mother admitted using the drug while pregnant.

"The drug is just that powerful," 31-year-old Crystal Vanover told CBS News. "You can't put anybody else first."

Vanover started using prescription painkillers recreationally ten years ago.

"I think when I took, it made me be 'supermom,'" she said.

She then moved on to heroin, which is more powerful and often cheaper, to get the same high.

When asked what heroin has done to her life, Vanover said, "It's ruined it."

Two-month-old Azaryah Jackson'smother struggled with heroin addiction. CBS News

Vanover has been in and out of rehab programs, and eventually lost custody of her first three children. She was pregnant with her fourth, Azaryah, when she relapsed again. She finally got help from Freedom House, a women's addiction recovery program in Louisville, Kentucky.

"I went from taking care of my kids every day, and doing everything a mom was supposed to do, and being there for my kids, to one day just waking up and saying 'this drug is more important to me than my children,'" Vanover said.

Freedom House is a residential program that guides addicted women through pregnancy. Its services are in high demand. In Kentucky alone, hospitalizations for drug-addicted newborns soared 48 percent in 2014, according to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.

Nationwide, in 2012, nearly 22,000 babies were born into opioid withdrawal. That's five times the number from the year 2000, according to a study by Vanderbilt University that was published in the Journal of Perinatology.

The study found the East South Central region of the United States, including Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama, has the highest rates of newborns experiencing those withdrawal symptoms, or Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). That region contains three of the top five pain pill prescribing states in the country which, the study found, supports the connection between increased opioid painkiller prescriptions and newborns born into opioid withdrawal. The region with the second highest rate of babies born with NAS is New England.

Many of those babies require weeks of hospital care. The same study found hospital charges associated with treatment of babies experience opioid withdrawal symptoms increased from $732 million to $1.5 billion. Eighty-one percent is attributed to state Medicaid programs

Jennifer Hancock is the President and CEO of Volunteers of America Mid States, which operates Freedom House. She was not associated with that study but added the social consequences will also have a major impact. "Infants born into addiction ... will now deal with the long term developmental, academic, and social outcomes of having this terrible disease built into their DNA, so to speak," Hancock said.

Hancock says to deal with the growing problem, Freedom House recently expanded and again has a wait-list of mothers waiting for treatment. The program provides women individual and group counseling, parenting classes and childcare services.

Because Vanover got help early in her pregnancy, Azaryah was not born addicted and was spared the agonizing symptoms of withdrawal. She and her baby will move out of Freedom House later this month, and into a sober apartment, to start a new life on their own.

"God was giving me a second chance to be a mother," Vanover said.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.