BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Leslie McCleney sat on the floor of her room and watched her baby, Layla, nibble on a plastic teething toy while standing in a walker. The peaceful scene of mother and child would be unremarkable if not for McCleney's harrowing experience while pregnant.
McCleney, 27, was arrested by Brookside Police in November, 2016 and charged with chemical endangerment of a child after using heroin. McCleney and Layla are now living at Aletheia House in Birmingham, where McCleney is undergoing court-ordered drug treatment.
"No baby born or unborn deserves to go through anything like that, but addiction is such a cunning, baffling enemy," said McCleney.
"We can't do anything about it, even with the love we have in our hearts for things like our children and our family. It's a disease and it can only be treated."
McCleney was one of two women we talked to at Aletheia House. The residential treatment program is one of only two publicly funded facilities in the state that can accomodate pregnant women and new moms with babies.
McCleney said keeping Layla with her during treatment has meant everything to her recovery.
"I honestly don't think I would have gotten better if I wouldn't have had her here with me," she said.
Nikkia Enno, 29, ended up at Aletheia House after she was arrested in Etowah County for using meth while pregnant. Enno said she battled addiction for years in her home state of Massachusetts, but was hopeful she could get her life together after moving to Alabama in September 2016 to join her fiance. Shortly after, the couple learned Enno was pregnant. Enno said she stayed clean until they suffered a series of setbacks, including losing their jobs and house.
"We were so stressed out and we had absolutely nothing and just one night we decided, what the heck? And it just kind of spiraled into a really dark hole," Enno said.
Aletheia House Executive Director Chris Retan said women typically complete the program in three to six months, but the length of stay varies, based on the individual needs of each woman. Patients attend classes as well as group and individual therapy and moms-to-be in the program are provided with medical care by doctors experienced in treating complicated pregnancies.
"We stay out of the politics," Retan said. "Our job is to make sure these women get the help they need."
Enno said for the first time, she understands her addiction and why she was using drugs, even when she knew it could harm her baby.
"You know that there's potential harm to it, but when you're in that state of mind of just wanting to feel better, you try not to think about it, and you try to make excuses for yourself," Enno explained.
"The more that you do it while you're pregnant, the more you feel bad and the more worthless you feel, so the more drugs you do," she said. "It's kind of like a domino effect and it sucks, because the minute that you're not high anymore, you feel like down as far as you can go, it's probably one of the worst feelings," Enno said.
Enno is one of many women referred to Aletheia House after being arrested for chemical endangerment in Etowah County. In 2013, Sheriff Todd Entrekin announced his department's campaign to combat the dangers posed to unborn children by arresting and prosecuting moms-to-be if they abused drugs.
So far in 2017, Etowah County has made 54 chemical endangerment arrests, on track to double the 52 arrests made in 2016. Entrekin said the majority of women arrested are sent to Aletheia House for treatment and then enter Etowah County's community corrections program. If they successfully complete both, the criminal charges are dropped.
"Our goal is not to put criminal charges on these people," Entrekin said. "Our goal is to save the life of that child. Whether its born, unborn, we want to protect those that can't protect themselves," he said.
Two female investigators are assigned to work possible chemical endangerment cases in Etowah County. Investigator Brandi Fuller said 90% of the women admit what they've done and once they undergo treatment, they're grateful for the second chance.
"It's very common for these women to go right back to it," said Fuller. "You've gotta understand where they're coming from. You can't judge them for what they're doing. You've got to give them a chance to straighten up and do better."
Etowah County's arrests have raised legal and ethical questions about how these cases are reported to authorities and whether the criminal justice system is the best place for pregnant drug addicts.
Enno said her arrest came after she was treated for cramps at Gadsden Regional Medical Center and tested positive for methamphetamine. A week after she was treated, Enno said she got a call from an investigator who asked her to come in for questioning, but she decided to run. Two months later, Enno was arrested an hour before she planned to board a bus headed back to Massachusetts.
WBRC called and emailed Gadsden Regional Medical Center and asked for the hospital's policy on reporting cases of possible chemical endangerment of a child involving pregnant patients. We did not receive a response.
Sheriff Entrekin said many in the medical community don't agree with his department's decision to prosecute these cases over concerns it could prevent some women from seeking prenatal care. Entrekin disagreed with this concern, pointing out the Etowah County jail has a separate medical unit with a full staff where he said pregnant inmates receive constant medical care before they are referred to the Aletheia House.
"Is living on the streets and shooting up heroin better?" Entrekin asked. "I'd rather have them in a jail setting where you know they're getting a balanced meal, you know they're getting the medications they need, you know they're not doing the drugs. I think that makes it the right place to be at that time."
Another concern over jailing pregnant women involves the unique medical concerns for opioid addicts. Leslie McCleney had used heroin for a decade and said she was honest with her doctor.
"When I found out I was pregnant I really did want to stop," McCleney said.
She said her doctor prescribed the opiate blocker Subutex, used to treat heroin addiction. When she began taking it, McCleney said she stopped shooting up heroin because her cravings disappeared, as did the painful symptoms of heroin withdrawal. McCleney said the day she relapsed, she had run out of her medication and was four days away from getting it refilled. Instead, she shot up heroin with a friend and wound up in the Jefferson County jail where she said she received no medication and detoxed off heroin cold turkey.
Suzanne Muir, Associate Director of UAB Substance Abuse Programs said advocates are concerned that forcing a pregnant woman to withdraw and detox from opioids can be very harmful to the fetus. UAB oversees TASC, the community corrections program in Jefferson County that provides court advocacy and case management for people charged with drug crimes.
"Our stance is that they're better served in a residential treatment provider where they can get more specialized services and help them not go through withdrawal," Muir said.
WBRC emailed the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office and asked for the jail's protocol on inmates detoxing from heroin. We also asked about McCleney's claims that she received no medication in jail, including the Subutex prescribed by her doctor. The following statement from Chief Deputy Randy Christian was emailed in response:
"We have full time medical staff in our jails and inmates receive comprehensive care including administering needed meds. Without giving specifics on certain treatments we are equipped to deal with addiction and are comfortable that our protocols are sound standard practice."
McCleney said after spending two weeks in the Jefferson County jail, she was transferred to UAB Hospital, where she resumed taking Subutex and remained until she delivered her baby. Layla was born in January weighing 7 pounds and 3 ounces. She has some breathing problems that doctors expect her to outgrow, but otherwise, she's healthy and happy. McCleney admitted she's lucky.
"I absolutely have regrets," McCleney said. "It's something I'll live with for the rest of my life."
Despite medical concerns and differing opinions, Muir said she understood why some law enforcement agencies are choosing to arrest these women, but wished advocates could reach more women who need help sooner, before they get pregnant.
"I think when it comes down to it, we all share a belief that we need to help the baby," said Muir.
"I don't think people understand that you can't just stop. It's not a willpower thing, it's not a discipline thing. It's a disease and it's also a public health crisis," she said.
Enno is due to deliver her baby any day and her doctor said the baby appears to be healthy. She plans to voluntarily enter an outpatient drug treatment program when she leaves the Aletheia House, along with attending Etowah County's community corrections program. She said the entire ordeal has been difficult, but she's grateful for the chance to heal.
"I have an entirely different perspective on life," said Enno. "I have goals now and actually want to accomplish them. I want to be there for my children."
"I'm just so, so happy," Enno continued. "I'm blessed and I thank God everyday for this opportunity."