AG calls giving birth while on drugs “child abuse”

BOSTON (STATE HOUSE) – A mother giving birth to a baby while addicted to drugs is committing “child abuse,” according to Attorney General Maura Healey, who emphasized treatment when asked Monday if there should be a state law holding such mothers accountable.

In an interview with Boston Herald’s internet radio station, Healey said she recently met a Worcester area woman with three grandchildren born to a heroin addict. The grandmother was struggling to take care of the children, according to Healey.

“Those stories are heartbreaking and to me it’s why we have to be doing everything we can to support recovery and treatment services,” Healey said. “Because at the end of the day people are going to continue to use, they’re going to continue to relapse. We need to get a handle on that.”

“You can be arrested for spanking your kid, why shouldn’t you be arrested for doing heroin while your child’s inside of you?” asked the show’s co-host Jaclyn Cashman.

“Here’s where I come down on that. I agree with you it’s child abuse,” Healey said. “I also believe though and recognize that there are a lot of people who are dealing with this as a disease. It is a disease and so penalizing somebody who acts in ways that are a product of their disease — while it’s wrong, we don’t like what’s happening — I’m not sure that we need more laws to address that. I think we’ve got laws in place that deal with efforts we need to take to protect the safety of children.”

The Massachusetts House last May voted 118-31 to send to study a proposal calling for infants born addicted to drugs as a result of the use of illegal drugs by their birth mother during pregnancy to be placed under state custody and in a foster care home.

The vote total was largely along party lines, though two Democrats joined the Republican caucus to back the proposal, submitted by Rep. Shaunna O’Connell (R-Taunton). The two Democrats were Colleen Garry of Dracut and Jim Dwyer of Woburn.

At the time, O’Connell said the state Department of Children and Families pushes to keep families together, even sending children home to a heroin-addicted parent.

“We need a consistent policy that says babies do not go home with drug addicted mothers and we cannot wait another day, another week, or another month to implement this policy,” she said during debate while lawmakers were considering a supplemental budget bill.

Rep. David Linsky, a Natick Democrat and a former prosecutor, took to the floor to respond and said O’Connell was right in saying that something must be done.

“But putting a statute like this into a supplemental budget bill, without any study, without any thought, without any testimony, without any debate, quite frankly, is the wrong way to do it,” he said.

O’Connell’s proposal would “completely tie the juvenile court’s hands” and was unlikely to survive a “due process” challenge, he said.

O’Connell told the News Service on Monday that she was not sure whether a law or different procedures within the state department are what’s needed.

Agency employees have told her that parents are not required to take drug tests, she said. “As a result of the reality that there are babies born addicted to drugs and they go home with mothers, I truly believe we’ve got to protect these babies the best we can,” she added.

Healey’s comments on Monday came as child advocates, with 390 shoes placed on 20 steps of the Grand Staircase, sought to highlight the average number of children confirmed to be abused and neglected each week in Massachusetts. Half of them are under the age of seven.

“The good news: the number is lower than what we shared last year,” said Jim Rooney, chair of the board of directors for the Children’s Trust, a family support organization, and executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. “But we are still talking about 390 confirmed cases each week. That means today there will be 55 confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect in the Commonwealth, so we have plenty of work to do.”

The number fell from 410 children a week last year. In 2009, the same event featured 700 shoes on the Grand Staircase.

According to the Children’s Trust, they served 2,965 families in fiscal year 2014.

On Monday, Gov. Charlie Baker described himself as a “huge fan” of organizations like the Children’s Trust. At the organization’s Grand Staircase event, he proclaimed April as Child Abuse Prevention Month.

“That program is all about helping parents early on, when in many respects, for many of us, including me, we could really use the help,” Baker said.

The Children’s Trust is a combination of public and private money, raising between $700,000 and $1 million of their own to support their initiatives, according to Baker, who has donated to the organization.

“It’s why it’s been supported and sustained by the Legislature and by governors across…almost twenty years,” he added.

The event also drew House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst).

“I’m not sure if enough can ever be done by any government or any organization, but I will tell you this, not only on behalf of myself but I think on behalf of all the members of the House, that each and every year, this is one of our top priorities when it comes to funding in the budget,” DeLeo said.

According to the Child Welfare League of America report submitted to former Gov. Deval Patrick, the state Department of Children and Families “sustained major budget cuts” between fiscal year 2009 and fiscal year 2012. The report came in the wake of the the death of a 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, and the group said the department should have known sooner that the boy was missing.

Suzin Bartley, the Children’s Trust executive director, said more resources are needed. But she noted that the Children’s Trust received a $4 million increase in fiscal 2015, the first such increase in a decade.

“We wish we could do more prevention,” she said.

Copyright 2015 State House News Service

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