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Can drug-addicted expectant mothers keep their babies out of foster care? Hillsborough has a plan

TAMPA - About one-quarter of Hillsborough County children taken into foster care are babies, a trend heightened in recent years by the number of infants born to substance abusing mothers.

Their children have a higher risk of developmental delays, feeding difficulties and being readmitted to a hospital because of potential birth defects. Their treatment and care is expensive and often falls on the local foster care system.

That's why Eckerd Connects, the agency that runs foster care in Hillsborough, is for the first time partnering with the Healthy Start Coalition to find and help women at risk of having their children removed into foster care.

The plan isn't just for those battling drug use. It's also intended to help in cases of domestic violence, teen pregnancy and other issues.

With $600,000 promised in new funding, Healthy Start aims to put neonatal specialists in every hospital in Hillsborough that has a maternity ward to look for children whose mothers may have been abusing drugs.

It will also set up a substance abuse newborn clinic and employ more specialists to visit mothers at obstetrician and gynecology clinics. The idea is to identify first-time pregnant women who may need counseling, treatment for addiction or other services. A program that has nurses make home visits to pregnant women and new moms also will be expanded.

The hope is to get help to families before they are the subject of a call to the state's abuse hotline.

"It's a new way of looking at providing support services for women and their families," said Healthy Start executive director Jane Murphy.

The money for the program comes from a $3 million contract awarded by Hillsborough County to fix the county's overburdened foster care system over the next two years. About 2,450 children in the county are either in foster care or being cared for by relatives after being removed. Roughly 60 percent of them are under 5.

The clinic for children affected by their mother's substance use will be based at Mary Lee's House, a child advocacy and support center on North Armenia Avenue. It will help connect mother (or caregiver) and baby with services such as neurology and occupational, physical and speech therapy. Children will also be assessed to make sure they are being fed appropriately and that their physical and mental growth is on track.

Moms will get help with withdrawal and other medical issues.

"A lot of women have an issue with relapse after the baby is born," Murphy said. "We want to really have touch points so if mom needs services, those services are available."

The addition of specialists should also boost prevention efforts, Murphy said.

Three neonatal specialists will be added to the roster of those already based at local hospitals. Their job is to ensure mother and baby get specialized care by drawing up a safety plan that spells out what treatments the baby needs before it can be discharged and then making sure mothers make required follow-up visits to a pediatrician.

The money will also increase the number of specialists based in women's clinics from four to six plus one other part-time specialist. They conduct screenings to identify women who may be using drugs or at risk of domestic violence.

"They'll be told, 'If you want to keep your baby, you'll really need to get into treatment,' " Murphy said. "It's making sure she's living in a safe place and then wrapping those services around her so she can be successful."

Longer-term help for mothers at-risk of having their children end up in foster care will come from the hiring of more nurses to make home visits for up to two years. Only 1 percent of families that go through the Nurse Family Partnership go on to commit verified cases of child abuse, Murphy said.

Pregnant when still a sophomore at Hillsborough High School, La'Quana Hagins fitted the profile of an at-risk mother-to-be because of her age.

She was unaware she was carrying until her obstetrician-gynecologist informed her she was already five months pregnant during a routine appointment. Staffers at the clinic recommended she be paired with a nurse.

That brought Polita Williams into her life. The 29-year-old nurse became one of Hagins' biggest supporters, convincing her that she could have her baby and still graduate from high school.

"Being a teenager, your mind is all over the place," Williams said. "Having a child on top of that is very difficult."

Hagins said the hardest time was after her son, Marques English, was born. She struggled with classes and a part-time job as well as the demands of motherhood.

"She was one of the main people I went to for comfort when I was in stress," Hagins said. "She gave me a clearer pathway of what I wanted to do and how to do it."

The bond between the two is still strong even after the two-year assignment ended. Williams attended Hagins' graduation ceremony last month.

The young mother now plans to study to be a labor and delivery nurse to help others like her.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.

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