After spending 24 hours with two foster babies in 2014, former Ohio schoolteacher Jill Kingston had an epiphany.
Maybe it was triggered by the absolute physical, mental and emotional exhaustion of caring for infants who could not be consoled, no matter what Kingston, then an experienced mother of three, tried. Perhaps it was the way they screamed incessantly and shook like leaves in a windstorm. Or maybe it was how one of them even stopped breathing temporarily, his tiny limbs flailing as his mother’s drugs left their mark on his system.
“That was my moment,” Kingston tells Citizen. “I thought to myself, ‘I have heard nothing about what these babies and parents are going through. Who’s helping them [get sober]?’ And I knew I had to do something more.”
“Something more” eventually morphed into Brigid’s Path, only the second facility in the entire nation and the first in the Buckeye State to specialize in treating babies dealing with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS, or drug withdrawal), as well as their mothers.
Though Brigid’s Path only officially started caring for babies in Kettering in January 2018, it has quickly found itself on the frontlines of America’s opioid crisis. Given its holistic, nonjudgmental assistance to mothers and fathers struggling with opioid addiction—medical personnel on staff, educational parenting classes, support groups, baby supplies, etc.—it might be easy to believe that Kingston and her team are primarily concerned with opioid abusers. Which they are. After all, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, approximately two million Americans age 12 and older have an opioid addiction.
Yet Brigid’s Path also wants to sound the alarm about the most innocent victims of the crisis, and the warning is simple: Opioid abuse is destroying an entire generation who has never chosen to use—and no one knows what the long-term effects will be.
“We have children who are losing their parents, children being left behind,” Kingston says. “It’s awful to watch, these kids of all ages who have gone through the trauma of not only the addiction, but losing their parents, as well. The stories are awful.”
But as opioid addiction increases its grip on vulnerable babies and children via their parents, they are stories that child advocates around the country insist must be told at all costs.
The opioid epidemic is not unique to one demographic in the United States. That fact holds true for the women under Kingston’s care; residents at Brigid’s Path are not necessarily who you would think.
The 13 mothers Brigid’s Path was serving at press time were “all different. Every situation is different,” says Kingston, whose adopted three-year-old was born with NAS, along with her current foster child, a toddler. “Everyone has had a high school education, and I think all have had some college. And they’re all over the map as far as economics, because [opioid addiction] doesn’t hit a certain demographic. I mean, we’ve had pastors’ kids here who were raised in church.”
Dr. W. David Hager of Baptist Health Medical Group in Lexington, Ky., isn’t surprised to hear that.
“The Church often creates an environment of elitism and piety that discourages ‘sinners’ from wanting to participate,” he says. “Christians often have difficulty admitting sins of omission and commission [like drug use] because they fear they will no longer be respected in the ‘Christian community.’ Enabling Christians to recognize their addiction, admit it and confess it and then seek help is difficult.”
Kingston agrees—and that’s the main reason why Brigid’s Path isn’t merely about helping babies detox and then returning them to their struggling mothers or putting them in another care-giving situation, as some facilities do. It’s about healing mothers (Christian or otherwise) and their children as a team.
To accomplish such a rare feat, Brigid’s Path—named for the patron saint of babies—is housed in a $2 million facility with 12 full-time registered nurses who offer round-the-clock care, as well as 30 support staff members on constant call. Lights are dimmed, noise is kept to a minimum and rooms are decorated like homes instead of sterile hospital wards. Mothers (and fathers, if they’re willing) take parenting and life skills classes and attend support groups while their babies recover nearby for up to three months at a time. As a nonprofit entirely funded by grants and donors, Brigid’s Path charges the state of Ohio nothing for its services.
“You’ll see the moms bathing their babies, feeding on demand, changing diapers—we do a lot of reading to babies, and you’ll see mamas singing and talking to them,” Kingston says. “Our nurses really encourage that interaction and try to teach moms how to do that, because sometimes [the mothers] might not have had that experience. Our staff really mentors mom into ‘just being a mom.’ “
Ashley Evans, 30, is one of those mothers. After getting addicted to heroin while pregnant and recovering from a car crash, social services threatened to take away her newborn daughter. But after becoming one of the first mothers at Brigid’s Path Evans instead got clean and determined to keep her baby.
“When I walk through those doors, I’m surrounded by more love than I’ve ever dreamed of,” Evans told the Today Show this May. Her daughter stayed at Brigid’s Path for two months and currently lives with a volunteer family so Evans can keep legal custody while attending college and obtaining appropriate housing in her bid to provide the right environment for her.
“Her entire life has changed,” Kingston says of Evans. “To hear her speak about how Brigid’s Path has changed her life—it’s amazing and overwhelming. I love it.”
And given that Brigid’s Path is located in Montgomery County, Ohio—known as the “Overdose Capital of America”—plenty more people need the sort of Jesus-based, holistic love Kingston and her team have to offer.
Besides that faith in God, Kingston’s motivation is personal: A year ago, her cousin overdosed on opioids and died.
That’s a story Hager hears often, and why he supports a Christ-centered 12-step program called Celebrate Recovery. Because the answer to America’s opioid addiction—and its subsequent harm to our children—is not more government-funded programs that simply “tell people to quit without offering them the tools to live in a society that encourages use of narcotics to escape the trials of life,” he says. An effective program “must help them learn a skill or trade; help them learn how to manage finances; how to care for children; how to learn to say no to those who want to use them or abuse them.”
As a gynecologist in a state hit hard by the opioid crisis—in 2016, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Kentucky had the fifth-highest rate of death to drug overdose in the nation—Hager wants “to help the body of Christ see this problem as a societal issue that will destroy our youth and children and to proclaim the message that this is not a primary brain disorder but rather a disorder stimulated by underlying root issues.”
That’s where Brigid’s Path’s holistic, whole-family philosophy comes in—and Kingston hopes hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans copy her lead. Indeed, since opening, her staff has fielded several calls from around the country wanting to replicate the Brigid’s Path model.
It can’t happen soon enough.
“If we as Christians and citizens don’t support the whole family, we’re not going to be able to help babies,” Kingston says. “We have to build support systems to set the whole family up for success.”
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Originally published in the August 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.