Local physical therapist combats the drug epidemic’s impact on children and infants

FAYETTEVILLE, WV (WOAY) – According to the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, about 50 babies out of every 1,000 are born in the state with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) which is a drug withdrawal syndrome infants can experience after birth.

This problem shows no sign of slowing down which is where local physical therapist Cindy Chamberlin stepped in, as she has been in this fight for over a decade. 

Chamberlin was working in the NICU in Beckley about 20 years ago when she began noticing an increase in babies born with an addiction to drugs caused by the mother’s usage during pregnancy.

Now, she works in Clay County Schools and also for the West Virginia Birth to Three program in Fayette County.  Her newest role is the chapter president of a nonprofit agency called To the Moon and Back dedicated to helping children with NAS and their families. 

“I’ve been seeing these children for years, and the numbers just keep getting bigger and bigger,” Chamberlin said. “There are times on my schedule where over 50% of the children on my caseload are substance-exposed or with NAS and what we’re quickly realizing is that these children struggle not just from the time their withdrawing from the medications, but they’re having challenges over the course of their lifetime.” 

These challenges are evident now in classrooms. Teachers are dealing with students who were born with NAS or had some form of exposure to active drug use and now have the tendency to have behavioral issues as well as physical ones. 

Chamberlin cited a study done by West Virginia University that found that 90% of teachers reported not feeling confident knowing how to support children whose parent(s) use substances.

“It’s getting a lot of attention in the educator’s world, and we need to continue to raise awareness because these kids aren’t bad,” Chamberlin said. “They’re just different. And we need to approach them diffidently to help them survive and thrive because otherwise these kids are going to be dependent on the system and not necessarily contributing to society as they get older.” 

So for Chamberlin, a big part of it is being able to provide resources to the teachers but also the families. Last week, she presented in Washington D.C. at the National Rural Health Association Policy Institute at a conference of 500 about the need for more resources for teachers, more intervention for families and more support from the community. 

She presented alongside Anne Hazlett from the Office of Drug Control Policy.

“I presented what real life is looking like and why that community aspect of it is critical, because we need warm handoffs. We need wraparound services. There’s so much that we need to be doing for these families.”

Chamberlin believes children with NAS are at particular risk between the ages of three and five as they transition out of early intervention programs into public schools where they can then fall through the cracks.

With an increase in the numbers of babies born addicted as well as the evident impact in the classroom, Chamberlin presses on in hopes to work herself out of a job. 

“Until all children have the same opportunities no matter where they live in West Virginia, we’re not doing enough.” 

There is a support group that meets on the first Monday of every month at Crab Orchard Church at 6 p.m. that is open to caregivers, families and professionals dealing with this issue.

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Anna Saunders
Anna Saunders is a weekend reporter for WOAY. With a diploma from Princeton Senior High School and a mother from Fayette County, she is no stranger to the area. She received a degree in Media Arts and Design from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia and wanted to return home to start her career as a reporter.