The Plight of Addicted Mothers

At Little Creek Lodge, we work to empower young men on their path to recovery. But some of our residents are fathers, too – and their wives, girlfriends, and partners are also struggling with addiction. If the mother was taking drugs while she was pregnant, the child could be born with something called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a condition affecting babies who were exposed to certain drugs while in utero.

Much of the news about opioid addiction has focused on its victims (more than 70,000 people in 2017), the drug companies, and law enforcement’s response. Other stories – like this special report by TIME– focus on the effects the crisis is having on other family members. The tide is beginning to turn when it comes to opioids, and more and more people are fighting for education and professional counseling services to help their loved ones on the path to recovery.

Unless it seems, the addict is a pregnant woman. The new legislative push for pregnant women addicted to drugs in prison.

Addiction as a criminal act against children

Already, states are passing laws that could make using opioids while pregnant a criminal offense. It’s happening here in Pennsylvania. In fact, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court “will decide whether a woman’s use of illegal drugs while pregnant qualifies as child abuse under state law. The Supreme Court recently took up the case of a woman who tested positive for suboxone and marijuana at the time she gave birth early last year at Williamsport Hospital,” per U.S. News and World Report.

In 2017, a woman in Mississippi was sentenced to 15 years in prison for exposing her child to opioids. In Tennessee, a child born with NAS is evidence enough to arrest and charge a woman with child endangerment.

According to the American Pregnancy Association:

  • In six states, doctors are required to test for prenatal drug exposure, and then report any findings of exposure (presumably to authorities).
  • In 17 states plus Washington, DC, not only must doctors test and report but their tests can be used as evidence in child welfare proceedings.
  • In 24 states plus D.C., prenatal drug exposure can be used against women to terminate their parental rights.

All of this begs the question: how can pregnant women get the help they and their babies need if the only option available to them in prison?

This is not the right approach

As we have said time and time again, addiction is an illness. You cannot punish people for becoming well. We understand that sometimes, people who are taking drugs will commit illegal acts, and under the law, there are penalties for those actions. As professionals who believe in the power of accountability – to ourselves, to our loved ones, to whatever higher power we believe in – we understand that element of the justice system.

But we think it’s obvious that these lawmakers don’t truly understand addiction. No mother would willfully put her child in jeopardy – that’s how strong the addiction is. It’s not only physical but spiritual as well. Addiction overcomes all other things. It literally rules people’s lives.

The great irony of this tragic situation, of course, is that a pregnant woman who stops taking opioids cold turkey can put her baby’s life in danger. We don’t want to diminish the seriousness of babies born addicted to drugs, or the dangers and risks that face both mother and child. But simply “quitting drugs,” as legislators are hoping to scare mothers into doing, could actually harm that baby more.

That is why it is critical that mothers who are addicted to opioids or other drugs have a safe place to go, and to receive treatment and counseling. They need to be in a safe, secure, and healthy location where they can access help without judgment or fear of reprisal.

For example, there is a program called PATHways currently being run by the University of Kentucky HealthCare clinic in Lexington. Kentucky’s neonatal abstinence syndrome rate is almost 3 times the national average. The program treats both the mother and the child in a way that gets to the root of the addiction and aims to empower those women, while also ensuring that their children receive the medical attention they need. This is the type of work our legislators should be doing: ensuring that pregnant women and mothers who are addicted to drugs or alcohol are not treated with disdain, and subject to imprisonment and punishment, but are encouraged to take back control of their lives, so they can live healthy, happy, sober lifestyles.

At Little Creek Lodge, we believe in that empowerment. That is why our addiction recovery program is aimed at getting to the root of a person’s addiction. We want our residents to feel confident in their choices, so that they are ready to take back control of their lives, too. If you’re ready to take that step, or if you have a loved one who needs help, Little Creek Lodge will be there. Please call 570-630-9354, or fill out our contact form, and see what we can do to help you get back on the path.

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Little Creek Lodge 359 Easton Turnpike Hamlin, PA 18427