THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF NURSING: Mothers in addiction should not be charged

April 16, 2019

HUNTINGTON — The American Academy of Nursing is calling to end criminal prosecution and punitive civil charges against mothers and pregnant women solely based on illegal drug use and instead promoting a public health response.

The academy released its opinion Monday in a policy brief with recommendations for addressing mothers with substance use disorder at the federal, state, and provider level — prioritizing care over criminalization.

Ohio and Kentucky are two of 23 states where drug use during pregnancy can be grounds for child abuse prosecution. West Virginia does not legally consider drug use during pregnancy to constitute child abuse.

The brief states criminal charges, arrests and incarcerations for these women has “reinforced a culture of fear and barriers” to basic health service, particularly maternity care and recovery programs.

“The net impact of these actions on women who are using substances and on their families has been to incite fear, suppress women’s disclosure of substance use, and create barriers to essential health and social services, with resulting poor outcomes.”

The academy likewise calls for increased funding for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, through which much of the federal funding for substance use treatment is dispersed locally. At the state level, more funding is also needed as well as establishing additional services for women and their families effected by substance use disorder, the academy said.

The academy also asks nursing leadership at individual healthcare providers to reinforce a “therapeutic health justice approach” by practicing through clinical practice and assessment.

A handful of organizations in the Tri-State already specifically serve mothers with addiction and their children. None have garnered as much attention as Lily’s Place, known for being the nation’s first purpose-built facility to treat neonatal abstinence syndrome, though it also provides structure for mothers suffering from addiction.

Lily’s Place Executive Director Rebecca Crowder said Monday she agreed with the academy’s opinion, adding that early entry into care creates a larger window to receive the recovery programming the women need.

“These mothers need to be treated with compassion and support,” Crowder said. “Prenatal care is important and we don’t want to create barriers or make the mothers fearful of going to the doctor.”

About 5% of all babies born in West Virginia currently suffer from NAS, caused by their exposure to drugs while still in the womb.