New River Valley Regional Jail offers empowered options to decrease number of drug-addicted newborns

PULASKI COUNTY, Va. (WDBJ) Many babies are born in our hometowns addicted to drugs before they've even taken their first breath.

In Pulaski County, the number of babies born with a drug addiction are 6 to 8 times higher than the state average.

Dr. Noelle Bissell with the New River Health District said 50% of pregnancies are unplanned and that unplanned pregnancies are at a higher risk for NAS.

"That's Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, which is where the baby is basically born addicted to drugs and has to detox," she explained.

Treating the disease could cost upwards of $60,000 per infant.

With the financial support of the Carilion Clinic Foundation, a new educational program called Empowered Options is offered to some of the community's most at-risk women, inmates at the New River Valley Regional Jail.

Inside the jail, class is in session. Barbie Zabielski is teaching woman about birth control and STDs. Many things on lesson plan, these women hadn't heard before they were pregnant for the first time.

"I was 15."
"Fourteen."
"I've had five pregnancies," some of the inmates said.

Zabielski said that's not uncommon in the women she teaches.

"I would say one out of every five people we come in contact with here had a pregnancy by the time they were 18," she added.

Many of the inmates also have an addiction.

"I asked them, 'when was the last time you used?' And it was the day they got arrested and were sent here," Zabielski said.

Since the program started in the spring, Zabielski has helped hundreds of women learn how to take care of their bodies and choose a birth control option that's best for them.

"Today they're not using so they're able to come in and think about this," Zabielski said.

"I got the implant," Brandon Akers said. She added that making that decision gives her more freedom when she's released from jail.

"I can focus on me and the things that I need to do for me and don't have to worry about something happening and getting pregnant and then having to worry about that," Akers said.

Through the program, over 100 women have received some form or contraception while incarcerated.

"So that's 100 people who going out have contraception and aren't going to get pregnant unintentionally," Bissell said. "And thereby, if they're substance users, aren't going to have a baby that's addicted."