OLD COLONY MEMORIAL – A locally based support program for children born substance exposed has expanded with a new chapter in another state struggling with addiction and the toll it takes on its most innocent victims.
To the Moon and Back Inc., a support, education and advocacy group for the families of substance-exposed children, has a new chapter in West Virginia.
Cindy Chamberlin, a physical therapist who has been a leading advocate for the cause in West Virginia, opened the chapter last week during her state’s annual “Year of the Child” advocacy day. Chamberlin said she found a kindred spirit in To The Moon and Back founder and President Theresa Harmon and decided to use her program model to continue advocating on behalf of affected children in the Mountain State.
“I have a loud voice for advocacy but no time to start a nonprofit,” Chamberlin said. “To The Moon and Back is the missing link to move it to another level.”
Chamberlin and Harmon connected online last year after Harmon saw a story about Chamberlin’s work in West Virginia’s “Birth to Three” early intervention program. The story, produced by NOVA, followed Chamberlin’s efforts to help two brothers who were born substance exposed and had terrible behavior problems in school.
The story never aired, but was used as an online introduction to the show and went viral, leading Harmon to find Chamberlin.
A clinical social worker, Harmon started her group at the Plymouth Recovery Center in October 2017 as a way to help adoptive and foster families of children who are born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) or as Substance Exposed Newborns (SEN). NAS affects newborns who are exposed to alcohol or other drugs ingested by the mother during pregnancy.
Research suggests Southeastern Massachusetts has the highest incidence of NAS in the state – 46 cases per 1,000 births. In parts of West Virginia, it is worse, more than 50 cases per 1,000 births – the highest rate of incidence in the nation.
“The really cool part about it is the film only made it to the cutting room floor, but the director felt so strongly about it they put it on Facebook and that led to Theresa and I talking. We realized we really are kindred spirits, seeing the same thing and the seeing the same needs for education in West Virginia as well as Massachusetts,” Chamberlin said.
The West Virginia chapter is based in Fayetteville, a town with a population of only about 2,000, but will offer services in Beckley, a larger community that will be able to draw families from four counties.
Chamberlin said she expects to follow Harmon’s model of offering support groups and education while lobbying for help and awareness on the state level. She plans to roll out her first support group in March.
“The problem is everyone is so focused on the person in addiction that we have forgotten the children,” Chamberlin said. “These children are the innocent victims.”
Chamberlin said it is not a coincidence that schools in West Virginia are beginning to see overwhelming problems in kindergarten five years after the drug epidemic exploded.
“What I want to do is raise awareness that they’re not bad, just different, and we need to meet them where they are, not punishing and expelling them. We need to work with them,” she said.
Chamberlin said she already foresees a need to expand support groups throughout West Virginia to provide a consistent message for parents looking for help.
Locally, To The Moon and Back offers twice-monthly support caregiver group meetings at the Recovery Center. The group also holds quarterly meetings for children. Recent programs have addressed yoga and mindfulness as strategies for dealing with sensory processing and regulation.
The next meeting, March 2, will introduce children to karate as a means of self regulation.
The group also is putting the finishing touches on a resource guide to help families find the local support they need.
Harmon said she is excited to see the program expanding, especially in a state with the highest NAS rate in the country.
“To be serving West Virginia, where the rate is so high and there’s not as much access to resources, is meaningful,” she said.
By Rich Harbert