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Should moms of 'drug babies' face charges?

  • More than 850 newborns were born dependent on drugs last year in Tennessee, according to the state's health department
  • Bill would allow charges to be pressed against their moms
  • 'It will encourage these women to not seek care,' Dr. Jessica Young tells HLN
Should moms of 'drug babies' face charges?

All newborns cry, that's just a fact of life. But parents can usually diagnose and fix the problem: Is it a dirty diaper? Is the baby hungry? Does the baby just need some cuddle time?

For newborns who are withdrawing from drugs due to addicted or overmedicated moms, however, there is no way to stop the crying. They can do it for hours on end with no relief.

"I've held and rocked these babies. I just want to bawl, I just want to cry. It’s wrong," Terri Lynn Weaver told HLN. "These babies are meant to come into the world addicted to mommy’s milk, not cocaine or heroin."

Weaver, who is a mother, a grandmother and a Republican member of the Tennessee House of Representatives, said it was her maternal instincts that pushed her to start work on a bill that would target these mothers who she said "force feed" drugs to their unborn babies -- a move she likened to "child abuse inside the womb."

"This child has no choice -- it has to ingest and take what’s given to it. And it’s so sad that their little cries are not being heard," Weaver said.

The legislation she has proposed, HB 1295 and SB 1391, would give moms of babies who are born dependent on drugs two choices: Face a misdemeanor charge or go to drug court where they will be put through an 18-month treatment program.

The bills are currently making their way through subcommittees and have passed with overwhelming support. But it has been a process for Weaver, who said she has spent hours over the last year and a half discussing and debating the bill with local groups and other lawmakers.

"It truly takes a team of people," Weaver said. "We’re here to save babies and help babies -- inside the womb and outside the womb. And that makes for a good day."

A growing problem -- but is this the right answer?

The number of babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (or drug withdrawls) has increased tenfold over the last decade in the state, according to the Tennessee Health Department. There were 855 drug-dependent babies born last year, according to the department.

Their symptoms include jitteriness, problems feeding, a characteristic high-pitched cry and troubles being soothed, according to Dr. Jessica Young who runs Vanderbilt's Drug Dependency Clinic for pregnant women.

"They have to be in a dark room with very little stimulation," Young told HLN. She has worked on 150 such cases since her clinic opened about two years ago.

She said, however, that she doesn't believe this new bill will help solve the problem.

"It will absolutely not help," Young told HLN. "In fact, it will encourage these women to not seek care. And that is the last thing we need is for them to avoid coming in to the doctor -- avoid getting treatment -- because we need for them to be doing what’s safest for themselves and their babies."

How some pregnant women find themselves in the clutches of addiction

Many of the patients Young treats have become addicted to prescription narcotics after being legally prescribed the drugs following a surgery or injury.

"They find that they require higher and higher doses and before they know it, they just can’t stop it. It’s a very slippery slope." Young said. "I have many patients who are from small, outlying communities where everyone they know is on chronic narcotics for pain. So it’s really entrenched in their community."

As part of their treatment, Young's patients are put on a maintenance medication and sent to counseling, which she said is a crucial part of their recovery.

"A lot of these women have depression or are victims of rape or abuse as children," Young said. "A lot of the drug use is self-medication."

Weaver, however, said the bill isn't designed to target these women who abuse prescription medications but will, instead, go after "the worst of the worst" or those addicted to cocaine and heroin.

"We have a huge problem with prescription drugs but I don’t know what the answer is to that yet," Weaver said.

She told HLN that she hopes the mothers will choose drug court, which she has visited several times. She said she's heard testimony from "hardcore" addicts who have admitted, "The only time I realized I was in trouble is when I stood before a judge."

"That sunk in," Weaver said. "If a woman in Tennessee wants help, she will not be denied."

Understanding a fragile patient population

Young, however, still insists that this bill will frighten addicted mothers and keep them from seeking treatment, no matter their drug of choice.

"Pregnancy is often a really motivating time for these women to get their lives turned around, so we really have a critical time to work with them," Young said. "This is a population of women who are already scared. They’re already very distrustful in general of authority and the medical establishment and it takes a long time for them to build up trust. So this bill will make that harder."

She said she has started to see the effects of the proposed legislation already.

"I already have patients who are asking about it, who are worried about it. Patients who are engaged in care, who are getting good treatment and are scared even though they’re doing all the right things. It’s even affecting people who are making all the right decisions," Young said.

Young also said it can be an easy switch from prescription drugs to heroin, a move she's seen many of her patients make.

"I feel like the lawmakers really want to focus on the drugs that are considered more dangerous without really realizing that heroin and OxyContin -- it’s not really that different," Young said. "The manufacturing is different but whether you’re injecting one or the other, it’s the same thing."

Weaver, who said she's concerned about the next generation, stands by her legislation.

"Some people believe this is a very tender time when the woman’s pregnant ... but there is accountability," she said. "These are illegal narcotics. This is something that’s criminal anyway. They choose to do this, they choose to ingest it. We’re going to give them a choice to take a misdemeanor or take drug court."

There have already been 158 babies in the state who were born dependent on drugs this year, as of March 22, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

"A [drug-dependent] baby is never comforted. It will consistently, constantly, cry and scream and claw itself because it is not given what it is addicted to. And that is absolutely heartbreaking to a mother with maternal instincts," Weaver said. "One baby is enough."

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