An Alternative To Foster Care For Babies Born To Opioid-Addicted Moms

Infants do better with their parents, studies find, as long as parents have support to get and stay sober. This program starts during pregnancy, to rally and train a strong family support network.
Kelly Zimmerman holds her son Jaxton Wright at a parenting session at the Children's Health Center in Reading, Pa. The free program provides resources and social support to new parents in recovery from addiction, or who are otherwise vulnerable. Source: Natalie Piserchio for NPR

For most of her childhood, growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania, Kelly Zimmerman felt alone and anxious.

She despaired when her mother was depressed or working late shifts; when her parents fought nonstop; when her friends wanted to come over, and she felt too ashamed to let them see her home's buckling floor, the lack of running water.

Kelly tried to shut out those feelings, and when she was 18, a boyfriend offered her an opioid painkiller — Percocet.

Her anxiety dissolved, at least for a little while.

"It was wonderful," she remembers thinking. "Where has this been my whole life?"

Soon she was hooked, first on prescription painkillers and then on heroin. For years, Kelly was content to live — and, she says, maybe even die — on drugs.

Then, in 2016, when she was 26, she gave birth to her son Jaxton, and new feelings rushed in.

"I was in love with him," she says.

But it was hard from the start. Kelly was a single mom and grieving — the baby's father had died just months earlier from a heart attack. She was on methadone to treat her heroin addiction, which meant that when Jaxton was born, he went through opioid withdrawal.

"He was kind of stiff,

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