Second chances for drug-addicted moms in Delaware [video]

 (Paul Parmelee/WHYY)

(Paul Parmelee/WHYY)

Instead of putting drug-addicted pregnant women behind bars after an arrest, Delaware’s Department of Correction is testing an alternative.

About five months ago, in partnership with substance abuse provider Connections, DOC launched “New Expectations,” a drug treatment program targeting this specific population of female inmates. The pilot program is the brain child of DOC Commissioner Robert Coupe.

“One of the things I realized was that some of the ladies that were in prison were actually sent there by the judge because they knew she was pregnant, they knew she had a substance use disorder, an addiction, and they wanted to ensure that that child was born healthy and that the mother attained sobriety,” Coupe said.

Behind bars, pregnant women would receive prenatal care and deliver their babies, but their children would be taken away while they finished their sentences. Through New Expectations, the women live together in a group home in Newark and are given support through required group therapy for their addictions, as well as parenting and budgeting classes.

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The residents are not allowed to come and go as they please, the kitchen is locked, the facility is staffed around the clock and cell phones and cash are prohibited.

“The benefit for the mother is that she can be in a safe, healthy, nurturing environment that’s much more comforting than a prison environment. And then she doesn’t have the trauma of being separated from her infant at birth,” said Jill Walters, program director of New Expectations. “And the benefits for the baby are tremendous. There’s a lot of research showing that it’s very detrimental to babies to be separated from their mothers.”

The residents

In any given month, Coupe said there are typically 17 pregnant inmates in his facilities. Once potential candidates are fully screened and not considered threats to the community, they can be admitted into the program.

The way Coupe explained it, if the woman’s individual needs outweigh the risk she presents to the community, she would qualify for the program. Therefore, someone who has committed a violent crime would not be a candidate. 

The pilot program currently has three residents, but at maximum capacity the home can house 17 women.

Erin Jacobs, Shellissa Sisson and Tina Hearn were all hooked on prescription painkillers and then moved on to heroin. All three were pregnant when they were arrested and subsequently sentenced to the New Expectations program.

“When I first got here I wasn’t feeling the same way and I kind of had a bitter attitude,” said Jacobs, who was six months pregnant when she entered New Expectations. “When I finally got clean and had a chance to be around other girls that want to be clean, and are on the right path, it just opened my eyes.”

Sisson served two years at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution on burglary charges, a crime she said she committed to keep up her heroin addiction. When she got out, she violated the terms of her probation and wound up in the home.

“[I] actually asked the judge for this program because I heard so many good things about it,” Sisson said. “I wanted to have the chance to be able to be a part of a wonderful program that allows me to keep my unborn child and my 6-year-old that I have now with me.”

Hearn was in jail on robbery, assault and conspiracy charges. Hooked on heroin and eight months pregnant at the time, a judge ordered Hearn to New Expectations.

“I love it, I think it’s a great program,” she said. “You can have your baby here, you’re getting help for your addiction and you can have your baby. You’re not in jail and have your baby taken away.”

Hearn delivered baby Noah in late January. House rules allow her to stay in the program for six months after giving birth, giving her and other moms time to adjust and to set up things like housing and lining up a job after they’re released.

Once they “graduate,” Walters said the women would remain under supervision, but that the length of time the residents are on probation depends on their individual sentences. 

“Someone will continue to check on them and continue to drug screen them, but we set the women up with all kinds of services here,” Walters said. “They are going to continue to get parenting support, home visits, things like that. And a lot of our women will continue to get substance abuse treatment through Connections even after they leave the program.” 

The women in this story have struggled with substance use disorders for years and in some cases relapsed after inital attempts to get clean. But Walters is optimistic this time her residents will be able to stay on track because they are clean coming into the program and receiving ongoing support around parenting and with their ongoing recoveries. 

“I think the fact that the woman can bond with her baby, and is able to keep her baby, and raise her baby and begin that parenting right away is a huge incentive for her to stay clean and to participate in the program and to get all the services that she can get,” Walters said. 

And from the sounds of it, residents Jacobs, Hearn and Sisson agree. 

“Instead of making your life about a drug, that’s what I’m going to try different, make my life more about my family,” Jacobs said.

“I just have to stay strong, stay on the right path, I think I can do it,” Hearn said.

“You never stop fighting because I think once you stop fighting then you’re giving up and it’s only a moment in time when you’re going to slip. You have to fight for sobriety, you have to,” said Sisson, who with help from New Expectations, said she’s ready to go a full 12 rounds.

Walters said one of her residents recently graduated and two more women are waiting in the pipeline.

Cost savings and recidivism

Having an alternative to traditional prison also saves money. Jason Miller with the DOC said the annual per-inmate cost of incarceration was $36,000 in 2014. Based on a full house at New Expectations, Miller said it would cost the state $17,008 per resident.

The DOC’s Director of Behavioral Health Judy Caprio also believes addressing the underlying issue of addiction will interrupt the prison system’s revolving door. 

“People are coming into prison with some issues. If you look at substance use like a disease, much like you do with diabetes or heart failure, then maybe that person wouldn’t have been in prison to begin with,” Caprio said.

The state has three years of funding to keep New Expectations going, but Miller said the DOC will do a cost benefit analysis at the end of the year to determine the program’s sustainability.


This story will appear tonight on First, at 5:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. on WHYY-TV. The news magazine will devote the entire program to heroin addiction and treatment.

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