It is a shocking fact that roughly one hundred thirty thousand drug-dependent babies have been born in the United States in the last decade. These babies inherited a terrible and life-threatening condition from their mothers, women who were battling drug addiction for at least some portion of their pregnancy. While there is no doubt that drug-dependent babies whose mothers are in recovery for their drug problems still have quite a tough beginning in life, those newborns whose mothers are still addicted are in terrible danger, and sometimes lose their lives just as they are beginning. In the face of this horrific fact, one cannot help but wonder–is the government failing to adequately protect these newborns?
Drug Dependent Beginnings
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, which is essentially drug withdrawals experienced by the newborn child of a drug-addicted mother, is becoming increasingly common even as the heroin and opioid addiction epidemic continues to grow across the nation. Babies suffering from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome must be closely monitored, often for several weeks, as they tremble, cry inconsolably, clench their muscles and gasp for breath. When the newborn has finally made it through withdrawals, the hospital can release him to his parents. A twelve year-old federal law designed to safeguard these children demands that child protection workers be alerted to baby’s condition, but often this important step doesn’t occur and helpless babies are taken into a dangerous home environment that may very well guarantee them an extremely uncomfortable and short life.
Research into this problem has uncovered the fact that since 2010, there have been at least one hundred ten babies and toddlers who died preventable deaths while in the care of a mother who had at least used opioid drugs during pregnancy, and in many cases had continued to use these drugs postpartum. It wasn’t the fact that these children were born drug-dependent that brought an early end to their life, it was the fact that they were allowed to go home with individuals who were unable to care for themselves, let alone a helpless child. Forty of the children suffocated, thirteen died after swallowing methadone, heroin, oxycodone or other opioids, and the others met with similarly grim and horrifying ends.
The Keeping Children and Families Safe Act, which was passed by Congress in 2003, calls on individual states to protect drug-dependent newborns. Health care providers must first treat the newborns as appropriate, but by alerting child protection authorities they can help to ensure that social workers will continue to monitor the child’s safety even after they are taken home. Unfortunately, many states seem to be ignoring the law, leaving thousands of helpless newborns without any sort of protection. When the law was first passed, there were about five thousand drug-dependent babies born across the nation in a single year. A decade later, hospital discharge records indicated that there were roughly twenty-seven thousand diagnosed cases of drug-dependent babies born across the nation in a single year. This means that every nineteen minutes, another drug-dependent baby was born.
Many states don’t require healthcare workers to report drug-dependent newborns to child protection authorities if the mother was taking prescribed medications, even if these prescribed medications are dangerous, addictive narcotics like methadone or oxycontin. In so doing, these states may be subtly protecting stigmatization of mothers who are being treated for valid medical conditions, including drug addiction, but they are also simultaneously denying protection to a helpless newborn. Neonatologists admit that taking prescribed methadone while under a doctor’s care is generally safer for the mother and the newborn than if the mother were to try to stop taking opioids cold-turkey. However, the fact remains that a mother who is taking methadone is still under the influence of a powerful opioid drug substance and therefore presents a very real danger to her newborn. Even if she truly wishes to overcome her drug problems and be a good caretaker for her child, the fact remains that she needs help and support to make it so. It follows, then, that those who have the power to help a drug-dependent newborn and his mother have a responsibility to help them–by making the necessary report to child protection authorities.