NJ court acquits mom of abuse and neglect after baby born in methadone withdrawal

NJ court acquits mom of abuse and neglect after baby born in methadone withdrawal

The New Jersey State Supreme Court has acquitted a young mother of child abuse and neglect after her newborn infant exhibited symptoms of methadone withdrawal. The unanimous ruling by the State's six Supreme Court Justices has reversed an earlier appellate court decision that the mother was guilty of abuse and neglect. The woman, called “Yvonne” in the court records, could retain custody of the baby boy, the appellate court had ruled, but only under state supervision. The Supreme Court reversed that decision, saying the mother was taking methadone on doctor’s orders, so it couldn’t be considered neglect and abuse. She had become dependent on opiate painkillers prescribed for injuries sustained in a car accident, the records said. And when she became pregnant, she wanted to stop the painkillers, but doctors at the hospital told her to switch to methadone from the painkillers. Suddenly stopping the painkillers could jeopardize her pregnancy, she was told. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the appellate court with instructions it would have to find some other evidence of abuse and neglect, because the evidence as presented was insufficient for such a finding.

Baby was born dependent on methadone

When the baby boy was born in early 2011, he displayed symptoms of methadone withdrawal, and had to stay in the hospital for several weeks. The NJ Division of Youth and Family Services filed a complaint, asking the family courts to seize the infant and place him in state custody. A family court judge ruled in favor of the state, even though Yvonne was on methadone at the orders of a physician. The judge pointed out that Yvonne’s drug history dated back to 2005 and allegedly included cocaine and heroin. The judge acknowledged that Yvonne had not used those drugs while pregnant, but ruled that she could have custody of the baby but only under state supervision. Yvonne’s case was appealed, and that’s when the appellate court upheld the family court’s decision. But the appellate court only cited the newborn’s methadone withdrawal symptoms, and ignored the earlier drug use. And it said that “the fact that defendant obtained the methadone from a legal source does not preclude our consideration of the harm it caused to the newborn.” The Supreme Court says the appellate court made a mistake by basing its decision only on the baby’s withdrawal symptoms. It added that the court should be more careful not to make rulings that could cause pregnant women to avoid drug treatment for fear of losing their babies to the state. The Supreme Court said that unless there are special circumstances, “a finding of abuse or neglect cannot be sustained based solely on a newborn's enduring methadone withdrawal following a mother's timely participation in a bona fide treatment program prescribed by a licensed health care professional to whom she has made full disclosure.”

States, feds don’t agree on legal issues

The situations surrounding pregnancy and drugs and the effects on babies has never been resolved legally at the federal or state level, and states continue to go their own way. In some states, the fact of drug abuse while pregnant vs taking a prescription as ordered is not the issue. Simply bearing a child dependent on a drug is actionable, as in the case of NJ going after Yvonne. Fortunately for Yvonne, the Supreme Court disagreed and has probably set a new precedent for New Jersey. Yet in some other states, no legal action is taken except in cases of clear drug abuse. In a few states child welfare always gets involved, while in others a mom can be charged with a crime. In at least one state, Tennessee, she can be charged with criminal liability, receive jail time and possibly lose custody of her baby – although there are political movements afoot to hopefully reduce the severity in Tennessee. In some of our earlier blogs we have addressed the issues of drugs and pregnancy. Last year we reported on the fact that the number of babies being born dependent on methadone is definitely increasing. We reported how the number of newborns suffering any opioid dependency has tripled in the past few years. And in an important story last year, we covered the recent science proving that babies born dependent on opioids are at much greater risk of becoming drug abusers later in life. This is a problem with many different viewpoints on what to do after the fact. Meanwhile, the optimum solution is to be off drugs before getting pregnant, which means encouraging more users to make the decision to end their dependence or addiction, but especially women of child-bearing age.

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