Attorneys and law enforcement personnel discuss their legislative agendas. From left, Carter County Sheriff Chris Mathes, Erwin Police Department Chief J. Reagan Tilson, 1st Judicial District Attorney General Tony Clark, Sullivan County District Attorney
Local prosecutors want to implement penalties for women who bear drug-addicted babies, but also offer incentives that would allow the woman to receive drug treatment and not face prosecution.
The state District Attorney General Conference is pushing to get a new law passed to allow prosecution of women who take drugs while pregnant and have drug-dependent babies.
“Under this bill, the mother could enter a drug court or drug treatment and they would not be charged,” said Barry Staubus, Sullivan County district attorney general.
“The incentive (is) to get into a program they wouldn’t otherwise do,” he said.
Drug dependent babies — diagnosed as neonatal abstinence syndrome by state health and medical officials — cost millions each year to treat and many spend weeks in a neonatal unit.
Last year, Tennessee documented 855 babies who were born dependent on some type of drug. Of those, 397 were the result of the mother participating in supervised replacement therapy, 341 were prescription drugs where the mother obtained the drug without a prescription, 236 were a non-prescription substance and 165 were born to mothers involved in supervised pain therapy.
Other categories documented were therapy for psychiatric or neurological condition, unknown and no known exposure but the child showed signs of the syndrome.
“If a pregnant mother who’s about to give birth to a child ingests an illegal drug — which could be heroin, cocaine meth - Illegal drugs or legal drugs that are illegally obtained — and she gives birth to that child and as a result the child is addicted to drugs, if that child dies from that drug or if that child suffers severe withdrawal and is placed in a neonatal facility for several weeks, it’s not a crime in Tennessee. We can’t do anything about it. Our hands are tied,” Staubus said.
And because no crime was committed, the Department of Children’s services is often “reluctant to do a removal of the child to get it out of that home and away from that parent who may come out of child birth still addicted to drugs,” Staubus said.
The bill proposed in the legislature right now is what Staubus calls a “carrot on a stick” approach.
“It acknowledges that some mothers are addicted to drugs and need help. This bill, if the mothers after giving birth to an addicted baby they can enter into a drug court program or drug treatment and that would be a defense or an opportunity not to be charged with a crime.” Staubus said.
“However, if they refuse to go into a program or they don’t successfully complete it or they’ve had children before (who are) drug dependent, we can charge the mother.”
The reason prosecutors can’t charge a woman who bears a drug-addicted or drug-dependent baby is because the child is not a living being until it’s born.
“We can’t charge child abuse and neglect because under the law of Tennessee a child is not a child until it’s born. When these children come dependant on drugs, they’re in the womb. A child, under the homicide and assault statutes includes a baby in the mother’s womb,” but the child abuse statute does not, Staubus said.
The legislation is still pending and has not come up for a vote before the full House of Representatives or Senate.
”We proposed this last year and it was not successful and I don’t understand why,” Staubus said in frustration. He’s hopeful the bill will garner enough support to pass in this General Assembly.
Like with many drug- related statistics, Staubus said Tennessee leads the country — just like with meth — in drug-dependent babies. In Sullivan County, almost one third of babies born are drug dependent, he said.