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Expectant mothers using illegal drugs targeted in bill

Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011

Mothers who use illegal drugs while pregnant could be held for child abuse charges under a proposal being considered by state lawmakers.

Under a measure by state Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland County, the definition of child abuse would be expanded to include cases in which a newborn tests positive for illegal drugs at birth. Mothers could then be included in the state's child abuse registry for life.

"This is early intervention at the very earliest possible time," said Vance, a registered nurse, at a Senate Aging and Youth Committee hearing Friday in Youngwood. She said her bill is intended to get the child help and protection, not to punish mothers. State Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, chairs the committee.

About 10 percent of children in the United States are born to mothers who abuse drugs, and one in 13 children with a parent on drugs is physically abused regularly, according to statistics from the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

Francis Schultz, Crawford County district attorney and president of the state District Attorneys Association, said he'd like to see mothers who abused alcohol during pregnancy included in the measure and he'd like to see uniform testing standards required statewide.

"The mother's self-centered decision to use drugs while pregnant indisputably places the child's health and welfare at risk," said Jason Kutulakis, immediate past president of the Pennsylvania Children and Youth Solicitors Association. "While there may not be initial evidence of the effects the drug abuse had on the child, maternal drug use during pregnancy may have long-term effects on the child's cognitive and emotional behaviors."

But some human service providers contend that changing the definition of child abuse is unnecessary because state law already addresses newborns affected by prenatal drug use.

Marc Cherna, director of Allegheny County's Department of Human Services, said expanding the definition of child abuse won't make the problem go away. Instead, it will stigmatize mothers and create serious implications for her throughout her life. Employers in education, child care and health care are prohibited from hiring someone who is on the child abuse register.

Cherna said prenatal drug use cases fall under the state's "general protective service" category, many of which are opened for investigation. He said it's unnecessary to put these cases in a different category when either way "the goal remains the same -- to keep children safe and in their homes whenever possible."

Others believe changing the law would unfairly punish women by discouraging them from seeking treatment.

"Senate Bill 753 raises serious constitutional concerns because it punishes drug-dependent women who choose to carry their babies to term by labeling them as child abusers for the rest of their lives," said Andy Hoover, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. "(The bill) will deter drug-dependent pregnant women from obtaining prenatal care and delivering their babies in hospitals, thus leading to worse outcomes for infants."

Others who testified at the hearing, held at the Tots-n-Tikes Daycare & Preschool, said they favored a full-scale overhaul of the state's definition of child abuse.

Ward said after the hearing that she agrees and would favor a broader discussion of how the state defines child abuse. She plans to hold future hearings on the subject in Harrisburg.

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