By Ann Luongo

Substance abuse in the United States is currently at an all-time high. You can hardly turn on a news channel or open a newspaper without reading about the opioid crisis and the sad news of daily overdoses. Newborn babies are the most helpless victims of this crisis, born to mothers who use, and with the chemicals already inside them. There are those, however, who have made it their mission to help those who care for these infants – the caregivers who have willingly taken on the challenge or have suddenly found themselves as guardians – and are in need necessary, even crucial, support, services and resources for children born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS).

In the fall of 2017, Theresa Harmon, MSW, LICSW, launched a peer-to-peer group for caregivers of children born substance-exposed at the Plymouth Recovery Center. “As an adoptive family we knew many children born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) and caregivers who were struggling to find information on their children who were born with NAS,” said Andy Harmon, Theresa’s husband, and co-founder of To The Moon and Back, Inc., a 501(c)(3) dedicated to supporting children born substance-exposed and their caregivers.

“This group brings caregivers together in a safe place where they can share their experiences and resources with one another.” Theresa holds a Master’s Degree in social work and is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker who started her career in child welfare, working for the Department of Children and Families, in Florida. She also spent time working in early intervention, as a daycare teacher and school social worker. “All of these positions gave me a lot of insight into child development,” she said. “Currently, I work for Brigham and Women’s Harbor Medical in High-Risk Case Management. I work with adults that have serious comorbid medical conditions coupled with mental illness or Substance Use Disorder.”

Andy and his father run a Property Maintenance company out of Plymouth. “Our company has been in business for over 30 years and, during my time here, I have learned a lot about business, marketing, and building strong relationships.” From their nonprofit group, the Harmons learned that many of the children they encountered were struggling in the same areas and had similar needs. “At this time there is little research around the long term needs of children born with NAS,” Andy said. “Realizing that there was such a huge need for resources for these children and their families, we became a nonprofit on April 20, 2018, in the hopes of providing additional services.

Our goal is to give these children and their caregivers the necessary tools to reach their full potential.” Like many others, the Harmons have lost both family members and friends to this epidemic. As an adoptive and foster family, they’ve seen the effects that this disease has had on some of the smallest victims and their families. “We’ve had experience caring for children with substance exposure and seen how challenging it can be to receive proper guidance in caring for these children with no current best practices in care beyond the NICU,” said Theresa.

“As a social worker, navigating systems and advocating for underserved populations is a big part of what I do. Despite my background, we’ve still found it challenging to get what we need for these children.” Nevertheless, in less than a year, the couple has established the caregiver support group and given countless presentations on the ongoing needs of children born with exposure. “The thing that I am most proud of is the legislation we had passed with State Representative Matt Muratore and Boston Medical Center,” said Andy. “It was passed as part of the opioid bill in August and will provide grant funding for programs providing services for children born with exposure as they grow. In providing these services it will establish best practices in care and allow us to pull data on children as they mature so we know how to best care for them.”

He said they will also be developing and publishing a resource guide with area providers with experience caring for children with exposure. The booklet will explain what each service is and signs your child may benefit from the service. The group plans to launch a grant for which families can apply for uncovered expenses such as therapy copays, nutritional supplements, or durable medical equipment like weighted blankets.

They’ve started quarterly children’s groups with various activities tailored to kids with exposure, and also have plans to develop an online video series for families by families, discussing what to expect when bringing a child home from the NICU with NAS. “The limited long-term research that exists suggests that children born with NAS can have hearing and vision problems, fine and gross motor delays, behavioral and cognitive problems,” said Andy. “From the group, we’ve discussed these in addition to feeding issues, sensory processing problems, and issues of executive functioning.”

In five, or even 10 years, Andy said they’d like to be even further established with an even greater variety of services for children and families. They would love to extend their services throughout Massachusetts. “We also hope, by that time, that research has caught up and what our families report anecdotally is supported by quantitative research so that these kids can get the early services that will help that reach their full potential.

Additionally, we hope that the opiate ‘crisis’ will have diminished so that these kids, who are without a choice in the matter, will no longer have to be exposed in utero.” To the Moon and Back will be hosting its signature fundraising event, Adult Prom, on Nov. 2 at Alden Park and Grill in Plymouth. The event will feature DJ Lisa Z of iHeartradio’s WCOD and Cool102, 3rd Left with Jimmy Calandrella, a complimentary signature cocktail and tastings from Dirty Water Distillery, amazing silent auction items, passed hors d’oeuvres and more. VIP tickets have almost sold out. To purchase tickets, visit totheprom. eventbrite.com or buy them in person at Alden Park. Visit TTMAB’s Facebook page to learn how to win a limo ride for eight to and from the event. “People can also donate directly on our website, www.2themoonandback.org, or by mail to TTMAB, P.O. Box 1078, Plymouth, MA 02362,” Andy said.

“We are located in Plymouth, and hold our peer-to-peer group at Plymouth Recovery Center on the first and third Tuesday of each month. We’ve also been excited to see how interested people are in getting involved and sharing their precious time with our cause. We are always looking for volunteers and anyone interested should reach out to me at andy@2themoonandback.org.”