The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is poised to decide whether or not the state’s child abuse law can be used to penalize pregnant people who have narcotics in their system.
If the court takes the case and permits a finding of child abuse based on actions the mother took before the child was born, it will be yet another barrier to care that pregnant people with substance abuse problems may face.
The case in question, In the Interest of: L.J.B., involves a woman whose child was born allegedly suffering from withdrawal symptoms as a result of the mother’s drug use while pregnant. She tested positive for marijuana and opiates and the Clinton County Children and Youth Services (CYS) ultimately took legal and physical custody of the child, and will continue to do so until a determination is made as to whether the woman committed child abuse.
The state’s Child Protective Services Law was enacted as a civil statute to prevent child abuse and protect children from further abuse. The law defines child abuse as “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly … causing bodily injury to a child through any recent act or failure to act.” It primarily concerns requirements when it comes to reporting child abuse. The trial court ruled that the Pennsylvania law “does not provide for finding of abuse due to actions taken by an individual upon a fetus.”
But the appeals court disagreed, despite the fact that the child abuse statute was not intended to ensnare pregnant people. It reversed the trial court’s ruling and sided with CYS.
“Under the plain language of the statute, mother’s illegal drug use while pregnant may constitute child abuse if the drug use caused bodily injury to the child,” Superior Court Judge H. Geoffrey Moulton Jr. wrote for the majority.
“If Children and Youth Services establishes that through mother’s prenatal illegal drug use she ‘intentionally, knowingly or recklessly’ caused, or created a reasonable likelihood of, bodily injury to child after birth, a finding of ‘child abuse’ would be proper,” he added.
What possible good would come of this? It’s not that people using drugs while pregnant isn’t a problem. It is of course. But people who use drugs are often doing so because of physical and mental addiction. Criminalizing that addiction will not save babies. It will kill babies by making women even less willing to get prenatal care or get help for their addiction. Yet the belief that drug users need to be punished at all costs continues to hold great sway in our society.