Advocates say one of the biggest gaps in the state is access to addiction treatment for pregnant women. And that’s where two women working in the medical field want to step in by opening a residential treatment facility for up to eight mothers and their babies in Rochester.
But as they’ve discovered, filling that need is no easy task.
“This is the living room here, and this will be where the women will have group counseling sessions with our clinical director.”
Dr. Colene Arnold is giving a tour of what will be the home of Hope on Haven Hill. It’s a spacious farmhouse, and Arnold knows it well: she’s lived here since 2004 with her husband and two daughters.
“It’s a beautiful, Greek revival, 1850s home," Arnold says, "And we’ve loved living here. But I’ve always felt it was meant for something greater, something bigger.”
Review the site plan for "Hope on Haven Hill here.
Arnold will lease the home to the non-profit at below market value, which means she and her family will have to find a new place to live. She admits that took a bit of convincing.
“He was really not on board and my kids weren’t, either. They love this home, too, and they really didn’t want to leave. But through the process, my husband has definitely come on board, and my girls have also come on board."
Arnold works as an OB-GYN in Dover, and will serve as Hope on Haven Hill’s executive director when it opens later this year. As we continue our tour, she explains the goal will be to admit women when they’re pregnant and still in active addiction.
“So they’ll stay throughout their pregnancy. And then our hope is to be able to keep them for six months for up to a year postpartum, where that is such a huge risk for relapse time for pregnant women. Giving them a stable, nurturing home here with the therapeutic support they need is really going to sustain their recovery.”
She says expecting mothers will receive medication-assisted treatment, using methadone or buprenorphine, to get through their pregnancies. It’s an idea Arnold developed with Kerry Norton, a registered nurse and mother of three children, two of whom are in recovery.
“So that room we’re not going to show you because it is currently one of the daughter’s rooms. It’s going to be a therapeutic play room for the babies and moms," Norton says, walking through the house.
It will also be a space where mothers will have access to around-the-clock support.
Norton says programs like this help alleviate a common fear of pregnant women: that they’ll lose their children if they seek out help for their addiction.
“Families that have babies, it’s a crisis for people that don’t have a diagnosed substance abuse disorder or any other type of disorder. So you add substance use disorder to it, it definitely is…postpartum is a critical time and we’re going to give them lots of support.”
There are options out there: roughly 20 percent of the state’s substance abuse treatment facilities offer specialized care for pregnant or postpartum women, according to a 2013 survey. But even though state-funded programs must prioritize care for pregnant women, there are wait lists.
“I have calls, messages, and emails every day, from all varieties of ways from all sectors of everywhere asking me for help. It’s a crushing need right now. And it’s foremost in my head every day that the need is huge.”
“Unfortunately, being pregnant wasn’t enough for me to stop. I couldn’t stop for anybody.”
Abi Lizotte was the inspiration for Hope on Haven Hill. It was about this time last year when she was eight months pregnant, homeless and addicted to heroin.
“A lot of people begged. And I wish that I could have, but there was nothing strong enough, no one strong enough for me to stop. I don’t remember my pregnancy like most people because I used the whole time.”
She’s now seven months clean, but says at the time, it was easier to keep using than find treatment. She attempted suicide several times.
Kerry Norton met Lizotte at her first prenatal appointment.
“From January to June, we weren’t able to get her into the level of care that she needed for many different reasons, but basically because of wait lists and barriers," Norton recalls.
Finally, at eight months pregnant, Norton found Lizotte a spot.
"It was an hour and a half away from where I live, and after I left her, I cried like my entire way home. In my head, I could not even believe that this was the only thing we could do for the enormous amounts of women we have and know need this care.”
Lizotte’s story has a happy ending: her son, Parker, overcame the withdrawals he was born with due to her addiction, and is now nine months old.
“And he’s in like 18 month-clothing and walking around at nine months old, which is weird. But he’s doing great. He’s happy, he’s super, super healthy," says Lizotte.
Seeing a need, they got to work last fall, but soon realized making this a reality was easier said than done.
One of the first hurdles? Spending two hours before the zoning board to get the OK to open a residential facility in an agricultural zone.
“We had some abutters who had some concerns and they were all addressed. We were very impressed with the system and the entire zoning board and we were allowed to have eight women and eight babies.”
But as Arnold, the executive director, says, after filing for non-profit status in November, it only got more complicated.
“So we need to come up to code with a lot of capital improvements that need to happen. We’ll be a level 3.5 facility here in New Hampshire, so for that, we have to have a sprinkler system in the home. So that’s going to be a $10,000-$20,000 investment.”
The home also needs a commercial grade septic system, though Arnold says she’s exploring hooking up to Somersworth’s sewer system, which could benefit surrounding businesses.
“So we’ll do the capital improvements and then we have to do licensure for the residential facility. I hear that’s an ordeal to be able to get done, so that’s going to take time. And we can’t bill for our services until we’re licensed. So until we can get that done, we do need state support to be able to get open and start running.”
And the status of that state funding is the biggest unknown.
Hope on Haven Hill applied for a $450,000 grant from a pool of state money that would have expanded addiction treatment for low-income or homeless pregnant women and mothers. But the Department of Health and Human Services never awarded the money because it says the two applicants – Hope on Haven Hill and the Cynthia Day Family Center in Nashua – didn’t meet the criteria.
A department spokesman says it’s re-examining the request for proposals.
Still, Arnold says she’s optimistic, after state officials, including the head of the Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Services and the state’s new drug czar, toured the home last month.
“We did get an email back that they were looking at a variety of ways to fund our program, as well as any others that might work with pregnant women with substance use disorder. We don’t know exactly how that’s going to happen and we don’t know what the time frame is."
Arnold says she’s hoping to be open by the end of the summer.
In the meantime, they’re still working their regular jobs, and in their spare time, writing grants and fundraising. The program has raised nearly $80,000 since December.
But Norton says she can’t help but feel frustrated over what she says has been a lack of guidance from the state. She recalls the message from leaders in Concord to treat this as an all hands on deck emergency.
“And we took that literally and we did it, but I feel like there’s a whole…you know, if it’s an emergency and a crisis, send out the people to get us open because we’re here and we’re ready to help people. Every step of the way has felt difficult.”
And Abi Lizotte, the inspiration for Hope on Haven Hill, is now one of its biggest advocates.
She believes in the program because of its plan to focus on addressing the root causes of addiction.
“They know how imperative it is to actually take a look at what it was that got you to start using so you don’t have to go back to that. Because if you don’t look at it, relapse isn’t an option, it’s inevitable. It will happen.”