KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Melissa was addicted to drugs when she gave birth to her children. She still feels the shame of being rejected by people who struggled with their own disease but expected her to walk away from hers.
“They don’t accept you,” Melissa says, referring to past recovery groups. “My disease was so strong that I didn’t have the option to just ‘put down.’”
Abby, who has two daughters, was also shunned by people who didn’t understand how an expectant mother could keep using. It was like being an “outcast” among outcasts, she said.
“I can’t tell you how alone I felt,” Abby said during a recent support-group meeting. “We were humiliated for what we had done … But no one wants to be a drug addict. No one wants to lose their children. We love our children and want good things for them.”
Recognizing a ministry niche among mothers trying to recover from substance abuse -- and their babies who are born drug-dependent – Cokesbury United Methodist Church has sponsored a new faith-based organization to serve the spiritual, physical and emotional needs of this growing population.
Named for Susanna Wesley, the mother of John and Charles Wesley, “Susannah’s House” celebrated its grand opening July 12 with a ribbon-cutting, blessing, and open house. The center is located on Dameron Avenue in inner-city Knoxville, in the building formerly occupied by Wesley House Community Center.
The Rev. Rebekah Fetzer, minister of discipleship at Cokesbury, conceived of the ministry in spring 2013 and is now executive director at Susannah’s House.
“You don’t just get up and decide to be addicted while you are pregnant,” Fetzer said. “It’s heartbreaking from every standpoint.”
While drug abuse in general has risen throughout the nation, 42 percent of women who gave birth to drug-dependent babies in Tennessee last year were taking painkillers prescribed by doctors for medical conditions, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. Another 30 percent used illegal drugs and about 20 percent used a mix of both.
Whenever pregnancy occurs during addiction to narcotics, expectant mothers need medical care to receive substitute narcotics such as methadone. Fetal death could occur if a woman stops taking narcotics suddenly.
Infants exposed to these substitute drugs while the mother is pregnant will be born dependent on them, a condition referred to as Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS).
“Withdrawal is extremely painful for the babies,” said Fetzer. “They can spend weeks in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) on a morphine protocol that helps ease the pain of withdrawal.”
Tennessee has one of the highest rates of NAS by population of any state, more than tripling in the past eight years into a statewide epidemic, according to the Tennessee Medical Association.
Last year, 855 infants with NAS were reported to the Tennessee Department of Health. At the end of June 2014, regional health departments throughout the state had reported 463 cases, including 296 in east Tennessee.
In Southwest Virginia, incidences of NAS doubled from 58 to 119 annually between 2008 and 2012, according to Epidemiologist Anne Zehner of the Virginia Department of Health.
Fetzer first became aware of NAS after a church member adopted a baby born dependent on morphine – and later, after reading a newspaper column in March 2013.
“The column described what the baby goes through in the NICU as it’s going through the pain of withdrawal,” Fetzer said. “The shrill crying, the sweating, fever and seizures.”
Written by Karen Pershing of the Metropolitan Drug Commission, the column asked Knoxville News Sentinel readers, “Where’s the outrage? Why is this issue not keeping us awake at night?”
Fetzer, a founder of Cokesbury’s 11-year-old recovery ministry, was haunted.
A few days later, she attended a Knoxville District clergy meeting at Wesley House, which was soon relocating. “Wonder what’s going to happen to this place?” she thought.
The vision for what could happen flooded her mind. Others at Cokesbury and throughout Knoxville and Holston Conference would soon share Fetzer’s vision.
“I’ve heard that Rebekah had this idea and she never backed down,” said Mary Frances Tucker, a member at Fountain City United Methodist Church. “When a church takes on a project like this, that’s what it takes, 24/7.”
“So many of these mothers have never had love from anybody,” Fetzer said of the women she has met through Recovery at Cokesbury. “If they don’t have God as their anchor, as their core, it’s almost impossible for them to stay clean.
“So that’s what we really want to do. We want to walk with them and we want to love them, so that they can have healthy families and healthy babies. We don’t want them to have any more babies born dependent on drugs.”
Fetzer did her research and learned that mothers who want to stay clean after giving birth to NAS babies need help, especially if they want custody of their children. A complicated legal system, poverty, lack of support system, and other issues leading to addiction in the first place can make success difficult, she said.
Susannah’s House will provide free non-medical therapy, life-skills training, Bible study, worship, and group support to help mothers stay clean and eventually get out of the court system. The “Susannah’s Kids” program will provide child care, pre-school curriculum, and Bible study for their clients’ children, ages six weeks to 11 years.
When Fetzer took her idea for Susannah’s House to the Rev. Stephen DeFur, senior pastor at Cokesbury, he was “onboard and supportive” from the start, she said.
Cokesbury has many ministries housed within the church but needed a ministry outside the church, DeFur says.
“The church should never be seen as a destination. It is a launching pad,” DeFur said. “The true health of a local church is not based solely on how many people it attracts. You also have to consider how many people are being deployed into ministry.”
Fetzer and her team negotiated with the Women’s Division of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, the corporate body of United Methodist Women, to lease the building. They met with the medical and recovery community to gain advice, partnerships and referrals. Volunteers from Cokesbury and other churches and businesses poured themselves into the project, to help upgrade, decorate and equip the building.
Donations poured in, too, as people began to hear about a new ministry that was desperately needed, Fetzer said. “I was surprised when people started handing me checks.”
On Mother’s Day 2014, Cokesbury took a special offering totaling $60,000 to help Susannah’s House kick off this summer. Susannah’s House also received a $2,500 Holston Conference Change for Children grant and a $25,000 grant from the Holston Conference Foundation.
Trinity Health Foundation of East Tennessee awarded Susannah’s House an initial $10,000 grant; up to $150,000 more may be awarded in a second grant this November. In all, Susannah’s House has raised $135,000 toward a $225,000 annual operating budget.
During the July 12 open house, a father approached Susannah’s House staff to ask about enrolling his daughter into the program. That’s the next step, says Fetzer: To find 10 mothers and their children for the pilot program, which will run through November.
“We want to make sure we are delivering best practices for women and their children,” she said.
Helping recovering mothers and their NAS babies is “the most complicated issue out there,” she said. Susannah’s House wants to be effective and nurturing in a system that sometimes seems to work hardships against these families.
For example, effective July 1, a new Tennessee state law makes it a misdemeanor for a woman to use drugs illegally while she’s pregnant. The first law of its kind in the U.S., the General Assembly reportedly wanted to address a problem that adds more than $53 million annually to a strained Medicaid budget, according to the Tennessee Medical Association.
The new law seems to contradict the Safe Harbor Act of 2013, which states that if a mother seeks care during pregnancy with a drug treatment program, the Department of Children’s Services cannot take custody of her infant solely because she took narcotics while pregnant.
“I don’t think there is a mother in the world who wants to give birth to a baby dependent on drugs,” Fetzer said. “They’re at this vulnerable time, which is the best time to be getting help.”
After the pilot program is reviewed, Susannah’s House hopes to serve as many as 25 mothers and their children at one time. Introduced at the grand opening, the staff includes two full-time and two part-time employees.
Countless volunteers have already given their time to get Susannah’s House ready and more are needed, Fetzer said. On Saturday, July 19, Susannah’s House will host a volunteer orientation.
In the months before Susannah’s House was ready, Fetzer and other staff met with young mothers in one of Cokesbury’s Thursday-night recovery groups. They wanted to tell them about Susannah’s House and get their reactions to the new ministry.
The six young women cried, held each other’s hands, and spoke frankly about the circumstances, mistakes, guilt, shame and loss experienced because of their addictions.
“I don’t know why God loves me, but I know I need it, and I struggle so much to love myself,” said Becky.
Last year, Becky’s husband died after an illness and she relapsed. She lost custody of her 18-month-old son, but she said she is hopeful for her own recovery and for what Susannah’s House will do for others. Becky was thrilled recently when she was invited to join other volunteers in sprucing up the house where mothers and children will soon come for help.
“It felt so neat helping to get this place ready,” she said. “It’s a warm and Godly place.”
Donate to Susannah's House through the Cokesbury.TV website.
"DeFur leads Cokesbury into growth surge, one year after losing senior pastor" (The Call, 4/29/14)
"Recovery at Cokesbury: Network paves pathway to reach hundreds with gospel" (The Call, 5/12/14)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.