‘ACE Project’ helping expectant mothers struggling with substance abuse


Approximately 14% of babies born in West Virginia have been exposed to drugs or alcohol, which can lead to complications for both the mother and child.

“Drug Free Moms and Babies, which is known as the “ACE Project” at West Virginia University is a statewide initiative started by the West Virginia Perinatal Partnership to give extra support to expectant mothers struggling with substance abuse.

“The program’s making a difference in that women aren’t using substances that aren’t prescribed to them off the street and that’s a success,” said Dr. Cassie Leonard, Assistant Profess or Obstetrics and Gynecology at the WVU School of Medicine.

“ACE” stands for assisting, connecting and encouraging healthy pregnancy choices in women who struggle with addiction.

The ACE Project has a variety of ways to help, starting with making sure mothers stick to a medication assisted treatment.

“There’s not a lot of doctors that feel comfortable even prescribing that medicine throughout the state to pregnant women specifically,” Dr. Leonard explained.  “They’re like ‘oh you’re pregnant we’re not going to be prescribing that to you anymore’ and then we’ll have to find somebody to prescribe it to them.”

Recovery is more than just the medication; ACE makes sure patients also have a recovery coach, peer support and access to other necessary services. 

“Another part of the treatment is to make sure they have the proper counseling referrals and any other social referrals they need whether it’s social work, housing referrals and things like that,” said Dr. Leonard.

The project also wants to reduce neonatal abstinence syndrome in babies born physically depending on opioids or other drugs so they begin their lives healthy.

“The first line treatment is actually the babies being in a quiet, darker space, using just techniques we would use with any fussy baby so swaddling techniques, breast feeding and skin to skin contact is actually very soothing for a baby,” explained Dr. Leonard.  

As of October, more than 80 women in various stages of pregnancy were enrolled.

While the number of positive drug screens in pregnant women is decreasing, but there is a higher percentage of NAS diagnosis in infants.

Dr. Leonard says that could be to increased awareness and still considers the ACE Project a success.

“You inherently have a higher like fallout rate, dropout rate for any kind of these programs,” she said. “I think even if you have a handful of people that are successful that is success in my eyes.” 

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