TORONTO — Community service workers in North Bay say they are dealing with an alarming increase in the number of babies born to mothers addicted to drugs.
There were 22 babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome in the city of 64,000 in 2012-13, 31 the next year, and 48 in 2014-15, with 10 in January alone.
The big jump in numbers prompted the Nipissing Children’s Aid Society to “issue a call to action” to community members because it couldn’t keep up with demand, said executive director Gisele Hebert.
“The bulk of those babies seem to be in our district,” said Hebert. “I’m not sure why, but the figure has grown close to 500 per cent since 2003 in the northeast.”
The main question at a meeting of social service agencies, community leaders and the public this week couldn’t be answered.
“The question from the audience was: ‘Why is this happening in our community?'” said Hebert. “We are considered in the north, but there are much more remote northern communities than North Bay, and for example in Timmins, Sudbury, in Kapuskasing, they’re not seeing these numbers.”
However, Corrine Wilde, manager of addiction services with the Community Counselling Centre of Nipissing, said the problem of babies born to addicted mothers is worse in other parts of northern Ontario.
“Northeastern Ontario is the second highest number of (addicted) births, but northwestern Ontario is skyrocketing higher than we are,” said Wilde.
“If you look at the population numbers, the north is disproportionately higher than the south,” said Alan MacQuarrie, executive director of the Community Counselling Centre.
The North West Local Health Integration Unit did not respond to a request for comment.
The Ministry of Health said 896 babies across Ontario had been born to mothers addicted to drugs in 2013-14. That was up from 654 babies with NAS born in the province in 2010-11.
During their pregnancies, the addicted mothers used drugs such as methadone, other opiates including heroin, oxycontin and percocets, cocaine and marijuana.
“Crack in our community became very evident last year,” said Hebert.
There are five methadone clinics in North Bay, which offer the synthetic opioid to reduce heroin withdrawal symptoms.
The number of babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome put such a strain on resources in North Bay, the Children’s Aid Society exhausted all available foster parents within a two-hour drive — including expensive paid foster care homes outside the district — and even rented a cottage for some babies and their caregivers.
“That’s when I started calling community leaders to say this can’t be isolated to the Children’s Aid Society,” said Hebert. “And they quickly realized it was taxing all the resources in the area and were very open to coming together to dialogue about how we address this problem collectively.”
Prevention is key, said Hebert, and the community forum looked at finding ways to identify and help at risk youth to reduce the numbers of addicted mothers.
The addicted women want help to get off drugs so they won’t have their babies taken away by the CAS, and they need to be “wrapped” in community supports from medical care to parenting advice, said MacQuarrie.
“When they are connected, as opposed to ostracized, and stigmatized and judged by society, the connection helps them reduce their dependency and become better mothers,” he said.