woman holding baby
Meagan Shealy enjoying time with her baby. (Courtesy Meagan Shealy)

HOUSTON (KXAN) — As Meagan Shealy settles in at home after an overnight shift, her baby can be heard cooing in the background. 

“He’s going to be 10 months old,” Shealy said proudly to KXAN during a Zoom interview. 

She’s a mom to seven but explained this is the first time she’s been able to truly experience those early milestones. 

“I’ve gotten to be a mother to my son for the first time,” she said. “I had a lot of pain and guilt and shame around losing my other kids to the system.” 

Shealy has been in long-term recovery for substance use and opiates. 

She recently shared her story with maternal health leaders in Houston at a summit focused on treating substance use during pregnancy. She recalled the moments leading up to her first child’s birth. 

“My first experience was going into the hospital and having the doctors and nurses look at me like I was a monster — them calling CPS on me — me asking how can I get help and them telling me, ‘well, you got to figure it out on your own,'” Shealy said to the crowd. 

Need for expansion 

Shealy eventually discovered Santa Maria Hostel and entered treatment. 

outside of a building
Santa Maria Hostel’s Bonita House for women with children. (Courtesy Santa Maria Hostel)

Santa Maria is one of the largest substance use treatment centers in Houston for women, including those pregnant or parenting in the state.

“We’re one of the only places in the state where a mother may bring her children with her while she accesses substance use treatment,” explained Nadine Scamp, CEO of Santa Maria Hostel. 

The non-profit is now expanding to Austin after seeing more women needing help. Scamp said she hopes to have a facility up and running by next year. 

“We have always accepted referrals from across the state. But what we noticed during the pandemic was that we were seeing an increased number of referrals from the greater Austin area,” Scamp explained. “And what we found out is that the local provider of treatment services for women with children had shut down during the pandemic. And so currently there are no services in Austin — in the Travis County area — for women who want to bring their children with them while they access substance use treatment disorder services.”

Working to improve outcomes

Data from the Texas Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review Committee released in December shows substance use is one of the leading factors in pregnancy-related deaths, contributing to 8% of deaths. 

It’s why the Department of State Health Services is focusing on opioids and other substance use. Nine participating hospitals are working together with community organizations, including Santa Maria, which provide treatment and support for pregnant women affected by substance use. 

strollers outside a building
Strollers parked outside a training room where moms and their babies are either in a class or participating in an activity. (Courtesy Santa Maria Hostel)

“It may be policies that a hospital puts in place, it could be working with specific community organizations or state programs to really help support these women, both not only in the hospital, but within the community as well,” said Dr. Manda Hall, DSHS Associate Commissioner for Community Health Improvement. “It may be helping them if they have transportation issues, to get them to appointments, getting them into care, ensuring that if they have other children, do they have support for those other children — child care. So it’s all of those things that can kind of help them along in their journey and getting the care that they need.”

Hall explained another key component includes respectful care which ensures the voices of women are heard. The message is now part of DSHS’s Hear Her Texas campaign which encourages women to speak up when they have concerns and to recognize the signs of pregnancy complications. The campaign includes real stories from Texas mothers. 

“We know that if we listen to women, and we act, we can prevent some of these outcomes from happening,” Hall said. 

Saving lives 

The Houston summit was part of TexasAIM, one of the DSHS’s key programs to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity in Texas by working with hospitals to implement specific improvements to care during and after pregnancy. 

woman sitting in a playroom with her child
Mother and baby at Santa Maria Hostel library. (Courtesy Santa Maria Hostel)

Shealy said with the state now working with organizations like Santa Maria to improve outcomes, it will save lives.

“I believe if this would have been there for me years ago, my story might have turned out different,” she said.

Shealy is now a recovery coach and mental health peer specialist at a treatment center. She said she shares her story in hopes of helping other moms.

“My life is great today because of the people who are putting in the effort to change the way things are and take the stigma out of you know, women with addiction who are pregnant, that they can be helped,” she said. “Every woman, no matter what her circumstance is, deserves a chance at recovery and to be a mother.”