Franciscan Health’s Grace Project provides guilt-free support for moms who deliver babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome

In 2015, neonatologist Paul Winchester, M.D., of Franciscan Health Indianapolis, gave voice to an alarming trend he was witnessing in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. In prior years, he might see one infant a year needing treatment for neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). But a handful of years later, the phenomenon’s frequency quickly skyrocketed, with at least one baby a day in the NICU suffering from NAS.

Winchester’s observations mirrored national statistics. As the opioid epidemic grew in the U.S., the number of babies born addicted also increased. NAS rates were five times higher in 2013 than in 2000. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 70,000 people died in 2017 from drug overdoses, with 68% involving a prescription or illicit opioid.

Recognizing the gap in caring for babies with NAS as well as their mothers—who might continue to use drugs and place their infants at risk—Franciscan Health birthed the Grace Project at both its Indianapolis and Central Indiana campuses four years ago. The project, which has since assisted more than 60 moms, supports women before and after delivery by paying for a number of needs while they work to overcome their addictions and make a better life for their babies and themselves.

Through a partnership with clinical leaders, social services and donations to the Franciscan Health Foundation, the Grace Project has supported everything from addiction treatment programs to housing costs, job training, utilities, baby supplies, transportation and food for these struggling but motivated moms. Nominated for a 2019 HealthTrust Social Stewardship Award, the initiative also supports interventions such as medication-assisted treatment from qualified physicians.

“More than 400 colleagues have made at least one gift to the Grace Project, making it the most popular project employees can donate to.”
–Greg Williamson

Funding picks up wherever a mother’s insurance coverage leaves off, says Erin Neu, RN, BSN, an OB Nurse Navigator at Franciscan Health Indianapolis. “As I worked with patients with substance use disorders on the OB floor, I found there were often so many obstacles in the way of overcoming addiction,” she says. “These moms had a huge sense of being judged and a huge amount of guilt, so asking for help was really hard. We realized this is a big issue, and we need to help these moms get into treatment and feel supported during their journeys to recovery.”

No cap on support

After Greg Williamson won approval for the Grace Project’s launch, the Executive Director of the Franciscan Health Foundation appreciated how quickly donations of all sizes mounted. A notable proportion of Franciscan Health employees even earmark biweekly donations for the project directly from their paychecks. Community fundraisers have also been successful, such as the “Party for a Purpose” event incorporating casino games, food stations and a silent auction.

“More than 400 colleagues have made at least one gift to the Grace Project, making it the most popular project employees can donate to,” says Williamson. During the program’s lifespan to date, more than $210,000 has been raised.

“My philosophy is, we can’t be a source of hope or inspiration and then only help financially up to a certain point,” explains Williamson, adding that there’s no cap on funds available to each mother, even if she needs expensive inpatient or residential treatment for her addiction. “I’m so proud that the Grace Project invests in helping these moms complete their needed treatment.”

The Grace Project team from left to right: Erin Neu, RN, BSN; Traci Schank, MSW, LCSW; and Greg Williamson, Executive Director of the Franciscan Health Foundation. The Grace Project assists moms in need with supplies and financial support.

Success stories mount

The investment is clearly paying off. Grace Project coordinators point to many success stories, including a former high school and collegiate athlete who struggled with opioid addiction for years after a sports injury. Later becoming a heroin addict and seeking assistance while 28 weeks pregnant, she received approximately $7,000-worth of help from the Grace Project that went toward residential and medication-assisted treatment, rent, utilities, baby supplies, mentorship training and other needs.

“It was definitely money well spent,” Neu says. “She’s doing fabulous now and helping other moms.”

Franciscan Health Indianapolis social worker Traci Schank, MSW, LCSW, who helps coordinate services for the program, says the Grace Project’s impact will ripple for years to come by chipping away at the opioid epidemic and increasing reunification rates between mothers and babies.

“Moms are most motivated during pregnancy and after birth to change something like this,” Schank explains. “We want to offer them a guilt-free, nonjudgmental place to receive help in getting clean and staying clean. We feel the Grace Project offers moms hope they didn’t have before.”

Learn more about the Grace Project and the lives positively impacted by its support at

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