Pregnant heroin addict in St. Louis finds help at Queen of Peace

ST. LOUIS • Lying in bed at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in May, Amanda Davis was sickened by what she saw pop up on the ultrasound: a baby’s beating heart.

She immediately turned away.

“I was horrified,” she recalled. “What if I can’t kick?”

Homeless, with one bag of belongings left on her heroin death march, she’d ridden a bus to the hospital to get help in the psychiatric ward because she’d relapsed. She had no idea that she was 18 weeks pregnant.

“I was no longer just hurting myself,” said Davis, 35. “Now, I’d be hurting an infant that’s living inside me.”

But her addiction had hurt others.

She had already lost parental rights to her 14-year-old daughter. Her 8-year-old son has been in foster care since running for help from a Schnucks bathroom at Gravois and Hampton avenues. He had seen his mother overdose.

“He really didn’t have any reaction,” Davis said. “I hate to admit it. He’s seen it several times.”

The boy also found his grandmother dead from an overdose. She retired from the Veterans Administration in St. Louis, where she worked in an office. She suffered from arthritis and eventually became dependent on pain medications that became less effective. Davis, a former department manager at Walmart in south St. Louis County before she lost everything to drugs, said she had introduced her mother to heroin.

“The brain thinks of heroin like water. I am dying of thirst,” she said. “Your brain is screaming for the drug.”

Davis’ latest pregnancy calmed that voice.

Barnes-Jewish referred her to Queen of Peace Center, a Catholic Charities agency serving women with addiction and their children and families. About 750 indigent women show up each year on the front doorstep at 325 North Newstead Avenue, behind the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis in the Central West End. Some 10 percent of them are pregnant and addicted to heroin.

A Post-Dispatch story about the heroin epidemic in St. Louiscaused a stir last weekend by showing and telling the story of a pregnant woman shooting up. She had already lost three children to state custody because of her lifestyle.

She is one of hundreds of Missouri mothers who are increasingly in a similar situation. Nearly 600 babies were born addicted to opioids in 2016, a 500 percent spike in the past decade, according to the Missouri Hospital Association.

Queen of Peace was created in 1985 as an alternative to incarcerating mothers and putting children in state custody during the crack epidemic.

“Our model is designed to help provide support to the whole family so that the cycle of addiction can be broken, so that those babies who are born to moms who are substance using don’t end up having to come back here 20 years later for treatment of their own,” said Chief Executive Officer Lara Pennington.

She said most of the women haven’t had access to prenatal care. Or if they do know they are pregnant and continue to use drugs, shame and fear are often barriers to seeking proper health care.

“The system now is less punitive and more rehabilitative,” Pennington said.

The nonprofit, which has a $8.5 million budget mainly supported by government contracts, says about 95 percent of the babies in the program are born drug-free — not including controlled doses of Subutex, a narcotic used to ease a mother off heroin. Newborn babies are weaned off the medication with morphine.

“I felt so bad for him knowing that I am putting him through this,” Davis said of her youngest son Camden, who was born Oct. 7. “But it was better than heroin withdrawals.”

Today, she and Camden live in a Queen of Peace maternity home in the College Hill neighborhood with about 10 other women. During the day, they go to the central office for group therapy, life skills training and meetings with case managers who ensure they stay on top of requirements with the Division of Family Services and medical appointments.

“When you are on the street, you don’t call doctors and make appointments,” said Davis, who also suffers from anxiety, Crohn’s disease and a chronic inflammatory disease that attacks her bones. “That’s just not something you would do.”

Nor do you typically seek ways to be a better parent.

“This lady has saved my life, especially with my kids,” Davis said of the leader of a parenting class she likes.

There is a 6 p.m. curfew at the maternity home. Davis is expected to shop and cook on her own. She hopes to have access to her own apartment soon, one that is in the Queen of Peace network of support.

She does mandatory drug testing.

“I am the master of peeing in a cup,” she said. “But the more you have, and they are negative, the better it looks.”

The better the chance of keeping Camden. And maybe getting her other kids back.

This post originally appeared in the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Emma Vonder Haar