Pregnant in prison

Jen Strasenburgh walks alongside women facing an unplanned pregnancy, while simultaneously living in prison due to a substance misuse issue.

June 19, 2020

Q & A with Jen Strasenburgh, Bethany’s women’s advocate

Jen Strasenburgh, Bethany’s women’s advocate in Lancaster, PA, walks alongside women facing an unplanned pregnancy while simultaneously living in jail due to a substance misuse issue.

The ReNew program guides women who are fighting addiction and trying to keep their unborn child out of the foster care system.

Join Jen as she reveals her heart and compassion for sharing God’s redemptive work with these women.

What does the ReNew program’s acronym stand for, and who does it help?

ReNew stands for Recovering Mothers with Newborns. I work with women who are pregnant and in jail because of a substance use disorder. My work continues through the first year of their baby’s life.

What are the goals of the ReNew program?

We have five primary goals and, because I’m a social worker, they’ll come across a bit more academic and serious in nature. But what I really want to communicate is my love for the women we work with.

  1. Ensure the women stay in treatment for their substance abuse disorder
  2. Increase their resilience, helping the women bounce back after they leave jail
  3. Reduce recidivism by connecting the women with community supports so they don’t go back to jail
  4. Keep the moms together with their children and able to safely parent them
  5. Improve parent and child well-being, helping the women understand the importance of doctors appointments for both mom and baby

It’s challenging because accomplishing these five goals is really like climbing a mountain for many of the women we serve.

What are ACEs, and how does this measure impact the women you serve?

To get into the social work jargon a bit, ACE stands for Assessment of Childhood Experiences. The survey is only ten questions, yet it covers the individual’s history with physical, verbal, sexual, and emotional abuse, as well as household dysfunction.

The women we serve—who are struggling with pregnancy, incarceration, and addiction—have at least three to four times as many ACEs as the average person on the street. This means that these women are a highly traumatized population.

Unfortunately, one of the symptoms of a person with a high ACE score is that they have trouble trusting others. That means they have trouble accessing community services like doctors appointments because the trauma they have experienced rewired their brains in a completely different way.

What myths or stigmas do you want to help our readers overcome?

First is that addiction is truly a medical disease rather than a personal weakness or failure.

But I’ve also noticed some implicit biases that doctors and nurses can have toward this population of women. I want readers and listeners to understand that if a woman used substances during her pregnancy, it does not affect her ability to be a good or bad mother—provided she receives the community help she so desperately needs.

As the study of ACEs shows, an individual’s childhood experiences can have a great influence on their adult behavior.

Further, we’ve seen in recent years that substance misuse is one of the leading factors in children entering the foster care system.

With that said, how does ReNew keep families together and prevent foster care placements?

With our program, we have the ReNew Collaborative, which is a group of health care providers, the jail, and many other community partners who have come together to walk alongside these women and help them stay on track once their baby is born. The wraparound support is incredible to witness.

One story I can share is of Brenda* who grew up with her father who struggled with alcoholism. She lost her mother to addiction when she was young. This pattern, unfortunately, repeated itself when Brenda was a young adult. When she began using drugs, she lost custody of her daughter into the foster care system.

Fast forward a year or so, and Brenda was again facing an unplanned pregnancy—this time while in jail. That’s when I met Brenda.

The child protective services agency told me about one month before the baby’s due date that they weren’t going to give Brenda custody of her child. But we kept fighting—which was the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest.

Brenda accomplished everything she needed to do to get clean and was, thankfully, allowed to reunite with her baby after only one month spent in foster care.

How has your work been affected by COVID-19?

Instead of visiting the women in jail, I now communicate with them by phone. The women tell me that it’s sad and scary to not be able to see a friendly face any longer, and I’m unable to comfort them as well as I’d like.

Additionally, because many of the courts closed, women who should have only been in jail for a week or two on parole violation have now spent several months there.

How can readers and listeners support your work, especially since it is currently only located in one Bethany location?

One of the best ways to support is by volunteering with Safe Families for Children, which is a program Bethany partners with. For families in crisis—like how many of these moms still are after leaving jail—Safe Families provides temporary Host Families to wrap around the mothers and welcome their children into their homes. It’s a temporary respite for the mother to attend her medical appointments, find a job, and otherwise establish stability.

If you don’t have a Safe Families branch in your area, I’d encourage you to donate to women’s shelters.