Illegal drug use is often classified as a victim-less crime because, unlike theft or even drug dealing, the behavior doesn't affect anyone except the substance user. That claim of a victimless act isn't true when a woman uses drugs throughout her pregnancy, though. Prenatal drug use increases her likelihood of giving birth to a child with a physical dependence to the same drugs, which can be life threatening to the infant or result in lifelong physical and/or intellectual impairments. When this happens, should the mother lose custody of her child or even lose her own personal freedom? What is our intention as a society — to punish mothers for their choice to use substances and for the effects on their developing child? On the other hand, should we be focusing on providing help to mothers to stop using and be productive citizens and effective, loving parents?
When a child is born after prolonged and/or excessive prenatal exposure to drugs, he or she immediately begins to experience withdrawal symptoms. This is called neonatal abstinence syndrome and it's often life threatening enough to require a medical detox regimen. Some children are even "weaned" off the drug with a legal substitute such as methadone doses for the children of heroin users.
Throughout the past two decades, the number of drug-dependent newborns has increased. Charges of child neglect are increasingly common and children are sometimes placed in foster care rather than being returned to their mothers after treatment. However, every single case is different, and no law can protect all children equally. Drug use isn't inevitable or predictable, but, by taking children away from mothers who used drugs, foster care agencies in many states actually assume that the drug use will continue or worsen over time, and that the child will be better off without his or her mother.
This decision removes responsibility from the woman who chooses to use drugs, but it also exposes children to complicated, tense, and inconsistent situations throughout their early development.
In the global effort to end excessive drug use, helping people to end substance use has been much more successful than criminal prosecution. When governments enforce harsh drug policies, people become less likely to seek help. That's why so many countries have lightened their possession laws or implemented free counseling services for drug users who want to change. However, pregnant women occupy a legal and social gray area.
When a woman gives birth to a baby who requires detox, social workers may confiscate the child to protect its interests. However, some women are also arrested for child neglect, and may serve time in addition to losing custody. In states with the harshest laws, women who experience drug-related miscarriages could even be charged with homicide.
Because we already know that prosecution doesn't stop drug use, these legal measures can only be understood to put the child's interests and society's interests ahead of the mother's. Prosecution and prohibition methods are not successful as measured throughout history and up through the War on Drugs of the present day.
Saint Jude operates under the basic principles that shame and punishment only prevent real long-term change. We're here for you, no matter what you used or what such use has cost you. If you're really ready to change, it's not about punishment or shame but about your ability to commit to new behaviors, new habits and ultimately making a new life.
If youâ€™d like to talk in confidence to one of our Family Consultants, call today to get more information about our program and how it can help you move forward from substance use.