By Mark Powell
A New Baby and A New Start
It can be a nightmare scenario: facing incarceration while pregnant. It’s even harder for women who misuse drugs. They have the almost impossible task of simultaneously dealing with legal issues, struggling with addiction, and preparing for their baby’s arrival. It’s so overwhelming, it can feel like there’s no hope.
But New Expectations is changing that bleak situation. It provides an alternative to incarceration for justice-involved women in non-violent situations who are pregnant.
“Oftentimes, judges were sentencing pregnant women to jail if they tested positive for substances, mostly for the sake of the unborn child,” says Frances Marti, Regional Director for Behavioral Health for Connections Community Support Programs. However, separating mother and child immediately after birth hurts the woman’s chances for overcoming her addiction, and is harmful to the baby’s development as well. So, Delaware officials came up with a new way.
New Expectations allows the woman to receive intensive treatment and avoid jail time while living in a home that’s overseen by Corrections Department staffers.
The program began in November 2014. The group home provides 17 beds in 9 rooms. Treatment is available a few minutes away. Additionally, women participate in individual and group sessions, attend first-time mother classes and receive prenatal care. Medication-assisted treatment is also available, as well as cognitive behavioral therapy for those who have experienced trauma.
Women can stay at New Expectations until their baby is six months-old, and their child stays with them the entire time. “That’s important because it gives women the chance to bond with their baby and develop a relationship,” notes Diane Tisdel, New Expectation’s project director. “When a woman gives birth in prison, the baby is taken away from the mother. That immediately causes problems for both the mother and the child."
There are three phases to the program. In the first phase, participants gradually receive increasing levels of freedom as they progress. Phase two consists of learning life skills, such as budgeting. In phase three, which is work release, they are responsible for getting themselves to appointments.
Many women are hesitant about the program when they first enter the house. But that quickly changes and when their time is up, many don’t want to leave. Tisdel remembers Erin’s experience. “When I met her, I remember thinking, ‘This is going to be rough.’ Erin went against the grain and definitely gave us a run for our money. She wasn’t a first-time mom, but this was the first time she was really going to care for a child. Her son was in the care of her parents and she didn’t have the greatest relationship with them. This program was an opportunity to rekindle that.”
“In the beginning, Erin always seemed to have issues with other residents. Then one day a light bulb went off inside her. She just changed and became a model participant from that time on. After completing treatment, Erin wanted to give back. So she returned to tell her story. We put her through a peer mentoring program. Now she has a full-time job at a clinic. She says she doesn’t know what she would have done without the program.”
“We’ve had every story come through our doors,” Marti concludes. “We’ve had women who were going to put their baby up for adoption. We’ve had twins. We’ve had women call the program after completion because they were struggling and needed someone to talk to. Once women join the New Expectations family, because New Expectations is a family, we do all we can to help them.”
New Expectations was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.
J. Mark Powell is an author, former network journalist, and veteran communications expert.