BABY STEPS A family’s love shelters opioid-exposed babies — with room for moms, too



What kind of family takes in one unknown infant after another, babies that come with a pile of baggage that includes a dependence on drugs?

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The kind of family that thrives on good-natured sarcasm and piles of pizza, full of quick-witted and buoyant people with a love that stretches well beyond the walls of their home.

On this night, the Kingston family has packed itself into the basement. A renovation has taken over most of the house, but it’s promised to be over by Christmas. It’s just one big room, but it’s room enough for the whole family, plus the dog. The nightly chaos starts to settle. Nick Kingston pauses in the middle of yet another classic dad joke. Where’s the baby, he asks.

Zach, 11, is nonchalant. It’s getting late, he tells his father, so he put the baby to bed upstairs. No big deal.

This is the kind of family that gets through their days and gets things done in large part because they are all in it together.

Nick and Jill Kingston always wanted a big family. Even after having three kids of their own, they were looking for more. Nick had been adopted through the foster system at just 3 months old, so fostering to adopt seemed like it “would be super easy,” Nick says.

The need for foster families in the greater Dayton area, it turned out, was tremendous.

“We got approved to be a foster family, and they told us it could be a long time before we even got our first baby, and I think it was a few hours later we got the call,” daughter Courtney, 15, remembers. “I think the next day we got him.”

But something wasn't right with this child. After three biological kids, Jill knew a thing or two about calming a fussy baby. This infant was more than fussy; he was inconsolable and trembling. It was the same story with the next infant brought to the Kingston family, only a few weeks later.

Both were in opioid withdrawal.

Their mothers tested positive for opioid use at the hospital, Jill says, but that wasn’t presented as a major issue at placement. Symptoms are different for every drug-exposed baby and vary even more when neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) comes on top of other issues like prematurity. The Kingstons’ first foster baby was in the hospital for eight days without showing clear signs of withdrawal, Jill says, and the symptoms didn’t start until he was placed in their home.

It something the county’s 40 hours of foster parent training had not prepared the Kingstons for in any way.

“There was no topic on neonatal abstinence syndrome or anything about kids withdrawing,” Nick says. “It was, ‘How do you deal with teens who run away and cut themselves and burn things?’ Not, ‘Here’s how you deal with a newborn who’s withdrawing from exposure to heroin with tremors and uncontrollable screaming.’”

Between Googling symptoms, praying and sticking together, the Kingstons got both babies through their first painful months of life.

What NAS babies need: For drug-exposed infants, intensive care is too intense

The Kingstons had looked at fostering children as a way to give back. He and Jill wanted the process to be a family affair from the beginning, especially considering several babies might come in and out of their children’s lives before anything became permanent.

The plan was “totally exciting,” says Zach, who was looking forward to not being the youngest child anymore.

“It was a family decision,” Courtney says. “And I think it was a good decision.” Joe, 13, tries to play it cool, but is the first to laugh at unintentionally hilarious toddler outbursts or console a crying baby.

But after helping three drug-exposed babies recover to go home with grandmothers instead of parents, fostering “became a whole different journey” for the Kingstons, Nick says.

Jill felt called to help give the babies and their families a better way forward together. Watching family bonds broken to get infants into safe homes was heartrending, she says. She had to find a way to help the babies and hold the families together.

Her search led her to Huntington, West Virginia, where a clinic was about to open with the sole purpose of treating drug-exposed babies and helping their mothers and families get on the right track together. It only took one visit to Lily’s Place for Jill to hear a calling to expand her family once again. But it had to be another family decision. It started with open discussions about the opioid crisis.

“She had this big binder, and she pulled it out and she said, ‘I want to start a newborn recovery center,’” Courtney remembers. “I had no idea what that meant, but it’s become a reality.”

Jill set out to build Brigid’s Path, an independent recovery center for drug-exposed newborns in southwest Ohio that provides specialized care for the babies and connects their families with services and support — all free of judgment and free of charge.

The whole family grabbed sledgehammers to tear down the walls of a donated building. Meanwhile, they took on two more foster babies, both also drug-exposed.

“Neonatal abstinence syndrome, I had no clue about it until my mom told us,” Zach says. “I didn’t realize how big of a problem it was.”

Read more about Lily’s Place and Brigid’s Path: Two centers of hope open for opioid-exposed babies

There’s the family you’re born with, and then there’s the family that you choose — the network of friends and loved ones that can be counted on when you need them the most, even when asking for help feels impossible. In building Brigid’s Path, the Kingstons have made volunteers, professionals and mothers in need part of their family, too.

“I could not do any of this without the … support system I have in place around me,” Jill says. “If we can get these moms connected to the community, they’re going to have a family, they’re going to have a support system that will help them succeed. And that’s huge. You can’t do it without that.”

But getting Ohio's first — and so far, only — NAS clinic didn't sidetrack the Kingstons from plans for a bigger family.

The fourth drug-exposed foster baby who came into their house never left. The feisty 3-year-old has the rest of the Kingston family wrapped around her finger and even chose her own name, Mary. Her adoption was finalized just a few weeks before Christmas.

“It’s not just about you, it’s about helping everyone else,” Courtney says. “And getting to adopt a little sister, that’s just amazing, to give her a life that she wouldn’t have had anywhere else.”

ExploreClick here for more on the special series -- Baby Steps: The littlest victims of the opioid crisis

About this story

Rare Heartland Editor Gayle S. Putrich and Video Producer Allie Caren traveled to Ohio and West Virginia to visit the only two neonatal abstinence syndrome clinics in the United States. They listened to those whose lives have been affected by the nationwide opioid epidemic and learned how families and communities are coming together to aid the most helpless victims of the crisis.

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