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Should Moms Be Criminalized For Using Drugs While Pregnant? Tennessee is the First State to Say Yes

Nurse Kelly Denheyer cuddles a baby at PICC (photo by Rachel Belle)

Tennessee is now the only state in the country that will criminalize mothers who used drugs while pregnant. The state’s governor signed the bill into law this week. And the knee jerk reaction is to say, yes, addict mothers, who give birth to babies who have to spend a month or two withdrawing from drugs, should be punished. How could you do that to your sweet baby?

But critics in the medical and psychology fields think this will only cause harm. Barbara Drennen is the executive director of the Pediatric Interim Care Center in Kent.

Newborn babies come to PICC
to safely withdraw from drugs, with the help of expert nurses, and their mothers are encouraged to visit and bond with their babies while they’re there. Barbara says mothers at risk of arrest will do desperate things.

“You’re going to find moms wanting to deliver underground. Mothers have delivered and abandoned their babies in the woods or in Dumpsters.”

She says they might forgo prenatal care.

“They’re afraid the baby is going to be taken away. They don’t want their baby to be taken away so they won’t get pre-natal care. Often they’ll deliver at home or in an ambulance on the way to the hospital because they get scared. You know, the moms live very dangerously.”

Also, a large percentage of physicians in this country, who work with addicts, don’t recommend a mother stop using certain drugs while pregnant. If a mom stops using methadone, for example, the fear is that she’ll go back to heroin, which is even worse.

“If a mother is using drugs and gets pregnant I would never tell her to stop using drugs because the baby could be aborted. I would recommend she get on methadone. I’m not a fan of methadone, but I am in the sense that it will allow the baby to be born full term. Methadone is one of the hardest for a baby to withdraw from. But the baby is healthy and the withdrawals only last a certain length of time. The babies do quite well and leave us within 30 to 60 days.”

Another issue: if the mothers go in jail, where will all of these babies go? In 2013, nearly 900 babies in Tennessee were born with drugs in their system.

“You know, the taxpayers can’t afford to put all these children in foster care. Not only can we not afford it, there aren’t that many foster parents. Who’s to say the foster home is going to be better than being with the family? And I’m glad the state of Washington took the stand that they did, where they’re not going to punish the mom.”

Tennessee’s legislation would allow a mother to escape prosecution if she completes a drug treatment program, which is good. But Barbara wants to know why all the focus is on the mother.

“The state of Washington gives the mothers the methadone and they also put them in treatment at the state taxpayer’s cost. We do nothing for the babies. They don’t offer them treatment. Very few babies get treatment. Staying in the hospital, being sent home before they’re done with the withdrawals. That happens all too often.”

Barbara says with the proper care, babies born with drugs in their system usually make full recoveries and grow up to be normal children. This bill only focuses on narcotics, not alcohol, which Barbara says is the most dangerous drug for a baby. It can continue to affect a child as they grow older.

All around, she thinks it’s a sad situation, but is punishing the mother really the best solution?

“If mom could quit using drugs, she would quit using drugs. Especially if she got pregnant. She doesn’t want to intentionally harm her baby.”

PICC is having its 10th Annual Luncheon, its biggest fundraiser, on Friday, May 9, at 11:30 a.m. at ShoWare Center in Kent. Seahawk Superbowl Champion Doug Baldwin will be a special guest, and live auction items include a Seahawks flag signed by all players.

Click here for information and to get a ticket.

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