W.Va. center helps children harmed by addiction

By BISHOP NASH The Herald-Dispatch
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — How substance use disorder impacts a child’s growth — directly or otherwise — remains an emerging science, even as many of those born in the crisis years of the nationwide opioid epidemic now reach toddlerhood.
For those whose mothers used drugs during pregnancy, weaning them from their exposure to illicit substances in those critical first weeks is just the first step in a long, uncertain path to normal development, and the road ahead is still being mapped medically.
It’s a mystery unraveled in part, moment by moment, at River Valley CARES in Huntington’s West End. The new childcare facility, an outreach of the long-established River Valley Child Development Services, began operating in May with its inaugural class of six infants.
RV CARES (Center for Addiction Research and Support) is tailored for children ages 6 weeks to 2 years with a capacity for up to 16 children split into two classrooms of eight — keeping the staff-to-child ratio at no more than 1-to-3.
But some require much more one-on-one care, as they’ve quickly discovered, executive director Janie Fuller noted during a recent stop at the center, and nearly all seem to have some degree of sensory issues sparked by light, sound and smells.
In the room where children sleep and spend much of their time, the lighting is reduced to simply slits of sunlight peeping from the blinds while soft lullabies play. Adults keep from using lotions or perfume with the children near, and are asked to slip off their shoes before entering to avoid dirtying the floor.
It isn’t a medical facility — all those who were born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) have since had their dependence broken — and RV CARES looks and operates much like a typical early childcare center. There’s plenty of one-on-one cradling and playtime with an emphasis on developing those sensory experiences. Staff chart every movement a baby makes during the day in detail, including how often they yawn, sneeze, or even stretch — all indicative of their development.
All six of the first group were exposed to drugs in utero, Fuller said: two with methamphetamine, two with heroin, one with marijuana and another with Xanax.
New quirks have even appeared between babies born addicted to different drugs, she added. Those exposed to meth tend to excessively stretch, while those exposed to heroin typically want to sleep constantly. Some may even stop breathing while eating, with staff gently blowing in their face to prompt a breath.
RV Cares isn’t exclusively for babies recovering from NAS, but rather any child who has had their young life uprooted in some way by substance use disorder. That could mean a child removed from their biological home due to a parent’s addiction, foster children, and referrals through other adult recovery centers, the court system, or Child Protective Services.
Currently, five out of the first six babies are children of women living at Project Hope for Women and Children, a new 18-unit residential facility by Marshall Health providing stable living for mothers in recovery and their families in Huntington.
One of those children, a 5-month-old boy, is the son of a 28-year-old Project Hope resident from eastern West Virginia, who asked to remain anonymous, fearing the prevalent social stigma associated with drug use, particularly for mothers.
She had used drugs up to a week before her son was born, but has since been nearly six months sober. After dropping him off at RV CARES each weekday morning, that time has freed her up to focus on her own recovery during the day before picking him back up in the afternoon. Mothers and family, if legally allowed, can come visit their children at RV CARES at any point in the day.
“I can focus in on group (therapy) and when we go to meetings and I don’t have to be caring for him right then,” she said in a recent interview from the Project Hope courtyard.
It’s a shared struggle between mother and son undoing what addiction caused – though one is restructuring a life while the younger is building it.
“I thank them every time that I’m in there,” she added. “Because they really have helped me a lot, between them and Project Hope.”
RV CARES is entirely grant funded, chiefly from a $10,000 per child allotment through state funding. Ultimately, the center will fan out with broader services to include family support classes and evening hours. Building a good relationship with the whole family, rather than simply being an outlet for childcare, is key to repairing those broken units, Fuller said.
“The center of everything we do here and every decision we make is that child and what that child needs, and then we work on everything around it,” Fuller said. “That will ultimately cause a ripple effect into the families as a whole.”
River Valley CARES is located at 2021 West 5th Ave. in Huntington, and can be contacted during business hours at 304-429-3882.
Information from: The Herald-Dispatch, http://www.herald-dispatch.com