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Bill would allow prosecution of mothers with addicted newborns

December 20, 2009 | | Comments 12
State Rep. Richard Henderson, D-Jeffersonville

State Rep. Richard Henderson, D-Jeffersonville

By Beth Musgrave – bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Mothers of drug- and alcohol-addicted newborns could face criminal prosecution under a controversial measure proposed last week by an Eastern Kentucky lawmaker.

Rep. Richard Henderson, D-Jeffersonville, pre-filed the bill at the urging of several prosecutors in his district who are frustrated with the growing number of women who give birth to babies with alcohol or drugs in their system.

“There should be some kind of deterrent,” Henderson said. “A child being born with a debilitating injury — that’s not fair to anyone, least of all the child.”

Under the proposal, a woman could be charged with substance endangerment of a child — a felony — if the child is born with alcohol or an un-prescribed controlled substance in its system . The mother could also be charged if the child has a health problem caused by the mother’s ingestion of drugs or alcohol.

The proposal will likely have an uphill battle in the state legislature, said one key lawmaker.

“As far as I am concerned, this is just another attack on women,” said Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville and chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee.

Nearly every major medical group, including the American Medical Association and the March of Dimes, opposes penalizing pregnant addicts through the criminal justice system.

The threat of incarceration could lead mothers to avoid prenatal care and hospitalized births, or push them toward abortion, said Dr. Sharon Barron, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky who does research on the affects of a mother’s drug and alcohol use during pregnancy.

“We know the number one risk factor (for babies) is lack of prenatal care,” Barron said. “This legislation will not help babies.”

The Kentucky Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a Casey County case where a woman was charged for wanton endangerment after taking cocaine during her pregnancy.

Attorneys for the mother, Ina Cochran, argued in court on Dec. 10 that Kentucky’s current statutes do not allow a woman to be charged with endangerment for ingesting drugs during her pregnancy. The state legislature, they argued, has specifically exempted pregnant woman from punishment.

The Supreme Court is still considering that case. It’s not clear when it will rule.

Meanwhile, Wolf County Attorney Steve Johnson said he approached Henderson about the issue after hearing from law enforcement and social workers who are frustrated that more can’t be done to stop women who take drugs during their pregnancy.

The proposed legislation would give law enforcement a tool they don’t now have, said Johnson, who doesn’t believe current endangerment laws apply to mothers of drug-addicted babies.

“We have children who spend weeks in ICU units because they are trying to be weaned off drugs,” he said.
Henderson and Johnson dismiss the argument that addicted women would avoid prenatal care if the proposal is approved. They say addicted women are likely not getting prenatal care now.

Johnson also noted that women charged with endangerment could be referred to the state’s drug court system, which favors treatment over incarceration.

Burch said the legislature has resisted previous attempts to penalize pregnant women who ingested drugs or other harmful substances during their pregnancies.

The real problem, he said, is a lack of treatment options for pregnant women with addictions.

“There are so few places that will take pregnant women,” Burch said. “If they do, there is a backlog. I think this is something that needs to be studied more and to be dealt with in a different manner — through treatment.”

Filed Under: KY General AssemblySocial Services

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  1. Julia says:

    Interesting. Would the implementation of this legislation encourage addicted moms to seek abortion instead? Is this the outcome the lawmaker would prefer.

  2. LiberalandProud says:

    Once you leave the womb, conservatives don’t care about you until you reach military age. Then you’re just what they’re looking for. Conservatives want live babies so they can raise them to be dead soldiers.

  3. workingmomandgrandmother says:

    I dont understand how some mothers have a baby and they are addicted to drugs. But they get to bring them home. Yes it happens.The baby is addicted and on treatment and yet they get to carry it out of hospital and bring it home.I think mothers should have to prove they are clean and fathers.

  4. ForReal says:

    In regards to abortions for addicted moms….What about not getting addicted or not getting pregnant while addicted. Slap the cuffs on. This is an epidemic that needs to stop now.

  5. WonderWoman says:

    I agree with Rep Burch that more treatment options for addicted mothers are needed. If you help the mother, you help the child in a multitude of ways. Placing addicted mothers into our crowded penile system and their children into a mired foster system is not an acceptable solution.

    It is an obvious statement to say that no one should take drugs and addicts shouldn’t get pregnant. But the question here is what to do about it AFTER the fact. If there is a waiting list for pregnant women seeking rehab, then there is a good place to start. Perhaps some of these women could get clean, protect the health of their unborn child, and stay sober while rearing that child. To me, the most humane solution is being able to first offer treatment to those addicted before taking criminal action.

  6. Responsibleandproud says:

    I am a conservative and proud of it. I also care deeply about our children for many reasons and war is not one of them.

    We have tried pandering to the addiction problem and it does not work. You cannot continue to be worried that if you penalize people for horrid behavior they will do something worse. Someone has to draw the line and I think this bill is a good start.

    Exceptions can be made for mothers that come in early in their pregnancies that are addicted and ask for help. Once they decide to come in with a baby that is born addicted to crack, cocaine, or meth, all bets are off. They need to go to jail and the foster system, however harsh, will be better than the child going home with an addict.

    Liberal, how many children have you seen with addicted parents? I have seen too many. Even if the child does not have any long-term side effects from the pregnancy, they are doomed to a life of being exposed to physical, mental, and sexual abuse as well as a high rate of dependency themselves. Maybe you need to look back at the infant in Frankfort that died in an apartment where her parents and friends smoked meth/crack and ignored the child until she died from fumes and malnutrition.

    For those that think treatment is the cure all, you are naive. Addicts have about a 90% relapse rate under good circumstances. That is one of the reasons there are such long waits. It would be interesting to see how many of those women were pregnant and on that list before. At what number of addicted pregnancies would it be humane to put the mother in jail?

  7. S Sanderson says:

    Funny how we will take one stance when it comes to gambling in Kentucky but will take the EXACT OPPOSITE when it comes to issues similar to this.

    As usual, the right says do as I say not as I do.

  8. camo says:

    What kind of backwards ‘bill’ is this?
    well then, u must lock them up for SMOKING CIGS, BEING OBESE, OVER-BREEDING, picking WRONG MATE, etc!
    I mean, really.
    (u can’t force stupid people to wear SEAT-BELTS, which is LAW, so u really think this will work?)
    how about ENCOURAGING & SUPPORTING
    B-I-R-T-H C-O-N-T-R-O-L, GENIUSES!!!

    this b-i-l-l = another tax on the stupid,,,

    COMMONSENSE NOT COMMON…

  9. ClockWork says:

    No woman should use drugs or alcohol while pregnant. Maybe the answer to one who does is a mandatory tube-tying.

  10. Big Ben 4 liberty says:

    To all you leftists on here attacking the bill because it criminally punishes mothers who are criminally negligent due to drug use, you need to get real. camo thinks we need to encourage birth control, but how do you do that when we have the welfare state subsidizing the procreation of illegitimate children to begin with? We simply can not continue to pay poor women to get pregnant and then look the other way when they happen to have a substance abuse and dependency problem (which not surprisingly is often a sizable minority if not the the majority of these cases).

    Heck, we even grant automatic citizenship to a baby born of illegal alien parents who ran successfully ran across the border to have their new “citizen” be able to qualify for food stamps, WIC, TANF, SSI, Medicaid, S-CHIP and Section 8 housing. and again we look the other way into their pasts. We can not drug test any recipients of government aid of any kind. Unlike people who work for a living in the private sector who must routinely endure pre-employment and possible random drug testing in order to gain and maintain a job. Any such proposed bill that would require welfare recipients to get drug tested would be demonized and attacked by the left.

  11. […] low birth weight babies, pre-eclampsia (read about Kentucky at the bottom of this report), and drug addiction.  Midwives achieve these results through diligent attention given to the whole health of the mother […]