Bill proposing child removal from homes with fentanyl sparks charged debate

Jan 19, 2024, 5:05 AM | Updated: 7:42 am

A bag of 4-fluoro isobutyryl fentanyl, which was seized in a drug raid, is displayed at the Drug En...

A bag of 4-fluoro isobutyryl fentanyl, which was seized in a drug raid, is displayed at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Special Testing and Research Laboratory in Sterling, Virginia, Aug. 9, 2016. (File photo: Cliff Owen, AP)

(File photo: Cliff Owen, AP)

The immediate removal of a child from a home where fentanyl was found has generated emotional debate in Olympia.

Senate Bill 6109 seeks to address issues related to child abuse and neglect, particularly the presence of the highly lethal drug Fentanyl near children and babies. (A PDF of the bill can be viewed here.)

Currently, anyone can file a petition alleging a child’s dependency on the state due to abuse or neglect, including instances of sexual abuse, exploitation or severe neglect.

Under the proposed bill, the definition of imminent physical harm would be expanded to include child abuse or neglect resulting from the presence of high-potency synthetic opioids in the home or the exposure of the child to such drugs.

This marks a significant step in recognizing the specific dangers synthetic opioids pose in the context of child welfare.

On Thursday, the Senate Committee on Human Services took testimony from experts, lobbyists, doctors, former addicts, and parents.

Emotional testimony from all sides of the debate

Joyce Gilbert, a pediatrician from Olympia, testified in favor of the bill.

“These toddlers are showing up in our emergency rooms unresponsive, needing full life support. And we don’t know why until we figure out that it’s fentanyl. These children are dying,” Gilbert said.

The bill gives law enforcement the authority to take a child into custody without a court order if there is probable cause to believe it is necessary to prevent imminent physical harm related to high-potency synthetic opioids.

From there, A court hearing must occur within 72 hours of the child being taken into custody.

During these hearings, substantial weight would be given to the presence of synthetic opioids in a home or exposure to a child to such drugs.

A judge may deem it necessary to remove a child from the parents and their home to prevent imminent physical harm due to abuse or neglect.

Hospitals are also empowered to detain a child under similar circumstances, without waiting for a court order.

Lori Vanderburgh of child advocacy center Dawson Place, which places 1,100 children who have been victims of child abuse into safer environments, expressed concerns.

“I understand the trauma of removal. I understand disproportionality. And I’m terrified because we have children dying on our watch,” she told lawmakers.

Vanderburgh said parents and guardians using opioids aren’t keeping tabs of what they have in the house.

“It’s not realistic to believe that parents who are actively using fentanyl and other drugs are going to be able to carefully track where they store their drugs. It just does not happen,” she said.

‘Anti-child’: Others don’t support the bill

There were many who agreed that fentanyl is an awful scourge on society but the immediate removal of a child from a home where fentanyl is found could do more harm than good.

Jennifer Justice testified against the bill, stating that her two newborn babies were taken from her by the state due to her opioid addiction.

“The system failed to provide the necessary support leading to an 8-year battle with addiction, depression, and homelessness,” Justice said.

With counseling and help from Child Protective Services, she was able to give birth to another child that the state let her keep.

“I’m only standing here today because of legal prevention, lived experience advocacy, and connection to long-term community resources and support,” she said.

The bill mandates the Washington State Department of Children, Youth & Families (DCYF) to develop a high-potency synthetic opioid risk assessment tool for their staff.

Dr. Mishka Terplan, an OB-GYN, called the bill “anti-science, anti-child, anti-family, and anti-recovery.”

“This bill might actually increase opioid fatalities by driving parents away from life-saving care,” the doctor said.

Terplan added family separation interferes with attachment and is associated with negative developmental consequences in children.

“There’s no evidence that separating children from their parents means that they’re less likely to die of any cause, much less from accidental ingestion,” he testified.

Both Democrats and Republicans voiced support for the bill during the hearing. The committee is expected to vote on forwarding the bill to a vote of the full Senate on Monday.

Matt Markovich often covers the state legislature and public policy for KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of Matt’s stories here. Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email him here.

MyNorthwest Politics

Photo: President Joe Biden participates in a briefing in the Oval Office of the White House, Dec. 2...

Luke Duecy

What Biden’s withdrawal from the presidential race means for Washington

The news is out that President Joe Biden has stepped out of the race but we asked experts, how will Biden's withdrawal impact Washington?

12 hours ago

Image: Vice President Kamala Harris speaks from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Mo...

Associated Press

Harris wins Pelosi endorsement, delegates and claims fundraising record with $81M haul

Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, who initially had been one of the notable holdouts, endorsed Kamala Harris Monday.

17 hours ago

Photo: President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the 75th anniversary of NATO at the Andrew W. Mellon...

MyNorthwest and KIRO Newsradio staff

‘Bring it on:’ Washington officials react to Biden dropping out of the race

Washington officials have reacted to President Joe Biden dropping out of the 2024 presidential election.

2 days ago

Image: Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and President Joe Biden attend a trilateral meeting in t...

Associated Press

Democrats promise ‘orderly process’ to replace Biden, where Harris is favored but questions remain

As President Joe Biden ends his reelection bid and endorses Vice President Kamala Harris, Democrats must navigate an unprecedented shift.

2 days ago

Image: President Joe Biden speaks at the 115th NAACP National Convention at the Mandalay Bay Conven...

Associated Press

Biden drops out of 2024 race after disastrous debate inflamed age concerns. VP Harris gets his nod

Biden dropped out of the 2024 race for the White House on Sunday, ending his bid for reelection following a disastrous debate with Trump.

2 days ago

Seattle Traffic...

Bill Kaczaraba

City of Seattle oversight leads to tens of thousands getting $10 checks

A curious turn of events unfolded in Seattle as over 44,000 car owners and businesses began receiving unexpected $10 checks.

3 days ago

Bill proposing child removal from homes with fentanyl sparks charged debate