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Inside a Mother’s Fight to Save Her Baby and Break the Cycle of Addiction: ‘I Felt Guilty and Ashamed’

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When she learned her baby would be born drug-affected, Rachael Kinder was consumed by shame and guilt. “My heart hurt,” she tells PEOPLE. The West Virginia native, at 27, had been in active heroin addiction for 10 years before giving birth to her second child, Kryie.

Although in recovery when she conceived Kyrie with Dylan Hickey, her partner of two years, doctors advised Rachael to continue with the medication-assisted therapy, methadone, which would virtually promise that Kyrie would be born with the drug-withdrawal symptoms of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS. 

Unfortunately, that’s not uncommon in a state where opioid abuse is unrelenting — reaching into every community and affecting all generations down to the newest. In 2016, 5.2 percent of babies born in the state of West Virginia were reported with neonatal drug withdrawal. 

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“I felt very guilty and ashamed,” Rachael says. “Why should he have to suffer because of me?”

Rachael’s path to addiction was somewhat improbable. A former high-school cheerleader, “I always did really well in school,” she says. “I liked sports. I planned on going to college at Marshall University and doing marine biology. Back then I had all these options.” But an introduction to drugs by a boyfriend quickly led to shooting heroin, she says, which narrowed her choices and robbed her of ambition. She was hooked.

Watch the full episode of People Features: Lily’s Place: Babies Born Addicted now on the new People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN or download the PEN app on your favorite device.

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Dylan’s life had few parallels to Rachael’s. “My childhood was very unpleasant,” he says. “There was drugs and violence. I used to see my mom get beat every night, and I was in and out of foster care. At 14, I was an IV heroin user.”

Dylan, 27, was involved with drugs up until his late teens. After he served a seven-year prison sentence — and been clean for 10 years — he and Rachael formed a family with her 4-year-old son from a previous relationship. “I’ve known her all my life, and I always had a crush on her,” he says. “I guess it was just in the cards for us to be together.” 

And then, in December, their son Kyrie was born. During Rachael’s pregnancy, doctors had advised her to continue her recovery using methadone, her treatment medication. This is common practice, says Dr. Stephen Patrick, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University who studies NAS, “because women in treatment are less likely to relapse and more likely to go to term. A mom getting methadone is doing what’s best for her and her baby.”

For more on Rachael Kinder’s powerful story, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

When Kyrie presented with typical NAS symptoms of tremors, abdominal pain and an exaggerated startle response, Rachael and Dylan decided to bring their baby to Lily’s Place, the nation’s first comprehensive facility for babies with NAS and their families. 

“They accept us here,” Dylan says. “They’re here for the babies. And they’re here for us too.” 

After eight weeks at Lily’s Place, Kyrie went home with his parents. “He’s just a happy baby playing now,” says Dylan. “Everything is fine.”

And Rachael says she’s feeling strong about her recovery. “My sobriety is great. I’ve completely turned my life around.”