Putnam County will begin offering long-term birth control to women as they leave jail, at least for those who choose to be part of a family planning program.
Similar initiatives have been deemed effective in parts of East Tennessee to reduce the number of drug-dependent infants.
Northeast Tennessee has been the epicenter of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a condition in which babies experience withdrawal symptoms because of narcotics the mother was taking — illegal and prescribed. A handful of counties have seen rates going down. Sevier County reported a 92 percent drop in NAS nine months after implementation of a program that includes free birth control injections or implants for women leaving jail with drug charges.
“Women who are involved in a substance abusing lifestyle rarely think of birth control," says Lisa Tipton, who leads a treatment program called Families First in Johnson City. "Birth control isn't on the forefront of their mind, but the repercussions of an unplanned pregnancy wreaks even more havoc on a life that is very challenged to meet the woman's basic needs, anyway."
More: Learn more about NAS
The Department of Health is expanding this program into the fringes of Middle Tennessee. Putnam County has already had nearly 80 cases of drug-dependent babies this year, according to its health director. And 80 percent of women in jail for drug-related crimes told health officials they were not on birth control.
“We’re working to educate people and empower them to make wise choices and take charge of their own health,” Putnam County Health Department Director Lisa Bumbalough said in a statement. “We know this is a problem in our community."
Currently, Putnam is one of two dozen Tennessee counties working on NAS reduction projects. Best practices have also been shared with health officials in Kentucky and West Virginia.
As a potentially sensitive topic — recommending birth control for women with a history of addiction — law enforcement officials are emphasizing the optional nature of the program.
“It is a voluntary program, like all of the programs offered at our jail," Putnam County Sheriff Eddie Farris said. "Those inmates who decide to participate must go through classroom instruction prior to receiving the contraception option that they choose.”