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W&M project impacting incarcerated, pregnant women and their babies

  • Healthy babies
    Healthy babies  Healthy Beginnings provides nutritional support and other assistance to pregnant, incarcerated women so that they may have healthy babies, like the one pictured here (not a program participant).  Photo illustration by Erin Zagursky
  • A W&M effort
    A W&M effort  The William & Mary faculty members involved in the project include (left to right): Danielle Dallaire, Camilla Buchanan, Catherine Forestell and Scott Ickes.  Photo by Saquoia Freeman
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When Amy* found herself incarcerated last fall, she wasn’t just concerned for herself, she was concerned for the new life forming inside of her.

“I only had two months, which is still a long time, but I was like, no, I don’t want to have my baby in here,” she said.

Despite the daunting prospect of being incarcerated while pregnant, Amy – already a mother of two – soon found that she wouldn’t have to go it alone.

Amy is one of approximately 70 women who have received help from the William & Mary Healthy Beginnings Project over the last year. The project aims to provide nutritional support and counseling to incarcerated, pregnant women, and its founders are already seeing positive results.

“All of our participants who continue to participate in the program get something out of it, whether while they are incarcerated or after they are released,” said Danielle Dallaire, an associate professor of psychology and principal investigator for the Healthy Beginnings project.

The idea for the project stemmed from another study that Dallaire had been working on with Psychology Professor Janice Zeman. The two had surveyed mothers of 8- to 12-year-olds and found that 20 percent of their 212 participants reported significant problems during their pregnancies, including substance abuse, domestic abuse and incarceration. Some also didn’t even know that they were pregnant. Twenty-five percent of the mothers also reported birth complications, such as pre-term deliveries and babies with low birth weights.

In the spring of 2012, Dallaire and Catherine Forestell, co-principal investigator, received a $316,269, two-year grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation to start the Healthy Beginnings project. Camilla Buchanan and Scott Ickes of William & Mary’s Department of Kinesiology & Health Sciences also signed on as co-investigators on the project. A project coordinator and registered nurse were also hired.

Once the project was fully staffed in the fall of 2012, it began its work.

Partnering with four regional jails in Hampton Roads and Henrico, the project provided pregnancy tests to incarcerated women of child-bearing age. Women who were found to be pregnant were offered the chance to participate in the program.

Participants received prenatal vitamins, nutritional counseling, the support of a registered nurse and referrals for additional support. However, the support did not stop when the participants were released from jail. They continued to receive prenatal vitamins, visits from the registered nurse, nutritional counseling, referrals and additional support through postpartum.

As the year went on, the scope of the project grew. Partnerships with jails went from four to seven, and all local jails now welcome the program, said Dallaire. The project also developed significant partnerships with the Peninsula WIC office and the Southeastern Family Project, a residential support program for women with substance abuse issues.

Student interest in the project has also increased. Although they are unable to work directly with the incarcerated women, undergraduates have organized diaper, clothing and book drives for the participants. They have collected 4,000 diapers alone so far with the help of campus organizations like the Williamsburg Campus Child Care (WCCC) center, and they have another diaper drive scheduled for Nov. 4 - Dec. 6 with several drop-off locations across campus, including Tyler 118, the psychology department and the WCCC. One student also organized a profit-sharing partnership for the project with The Crust.

“It’s just crazy how amazing the William & Mary students and William & Mary community are,” said Dallaire.

The students have also helped with the entry and analysis of data from the project – data that shows that the program is making a significant impact in several areas.

Participants in the program are having babies with higher birth weights, said Dallaire. They are also increasing their nutritional knowledge and experiencing a decrease in depression.

“That, I think, is really key,” said Dallaire. “Carrying out the pregnancy while depressed and then into the postpartum period can be a real risk factor, especially if they have substance abuse or domestic abuse issues.”

With at least one more year ahead, the project hopes to continue seeing positive results and building additional partnerships with organizations like state-funded, home-visiting nurse programs. Dallaire and Forestell are also writing a paper on their findings.

But, in the end, it’s not the data but the people – people like Amy and her baby – that inspire the professors to continue their work.

Amy continued participating in the program throughout her pregnancy, absorbing all of the information on nutrition and breastfeeding and asking for help when she needed it. She also received a referral to a substance abuse program through Healthy Beginnings. Her baby was born addicted to methadone and had to stay in the hospital for a couple of weeks after being born. Now back at home, Amy said that she and her now six-month-old are doing just fine.

“I wish I had had [Healthy Beginnings] for all of my pregnancies,” Amy said, adding that she had very little support during her previous two.

“I didn’t have anything like that before. I didn’t have nobody be there for me or help me the way [Healthy Beginnings] was doing,” she said. “I just hope that more females can get that same help.”


*Amy is a fictional name used to protect the identity of the program participant.