Tiny AddictsAs we respond to a surge of drug addicted babies, we must focus on prevention
By Melanie Blow
America’s rising level of opiate addiction is resulting in more babies born addicted to opiates- one every 19 minutes. Unfortunately, discussion of proven solutions-maternal home visiting– is being ignored as we raise the alarm about this “new” problem.
Using illegal drugs while pregnant is undeniably bad for the baby. So is using many prescription drugs, using alcohol and cigarettes, and avoiding prenatal care. While states occasionally come up with legal justifications for criminalizing drug use by pregnant women, there are some very good arguments against this.
Having a parent addicted to drugs is traumatic and counts as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). It is inherently undesirable, and can lead both to other ACEs and to situations where the baby is put at immediate risk. So, the obvious solution to this problem is passing laws or policies that ensure social services is notified after a baby is born exposed to drugs, right?
According to ChildHelp, a report of child abuse is made every ten seconds. Now, we need to add another one every nineteen minutes. That’s a significant amount of strain to a system that already isn’t renowned for achieving good results. Let’s think about what that means.
Minimally, a CPS worker meets with the mother and drafts a safety plan for the baby. That plan will likely include rehab, and further monitoring. Compliance for a period of time, likely 90 days, will be rewarded with a closed case. No group of drug addicts is more likely to achieve long-term sobriety than a new mother, but statistically she is likely to accomplish this less than half the time.
If the mother fails to achieve sobriety, the next steps basically involve family court making a decision on whether they should place the baby in foster care. In some states, drug addiction alone is grounds for an indicated report from CPS. In other states, CPS must watch for signs of direct maltreatment- leaving the baby alone, leaving the baby with unsafe or intoxicated adults, etc.
Removing a child complicates things further. Legally, non-custodial fathers and grandparents are supposed to be offered custody first. Failing that, CPS is supposed to look for other relatives to put the baby with, and if there is no willing or suitable family, they must place the baby into foster care with strangers.
What does “suitable” mean to CPS? Basically, passing a background check against the state’s database of indicated child abuse reports, and of criminal convictions.
Unfortunately, there are some major shortcomings with this system. The ACE study proved addiction has more to do with childhood trauma than the whims of youth culture. While some ACEs come from things other than maltreatment, and child sexual abuse is often committed by someone outside of the child’s family, we now know that when an adult child is suffering from hard-core drug addiction that grown child’s family should receive significant scrutiny and services. Instead, the opposite is largely true- when CPS places children with relatives, the relatives often receive less follow-up, support and training than professional foster parents do.
Taking in vulnerable children is appealing for sex offenders, and unfortunately, the laws make it easy for them to do this. Statutes of Limitation, along with society’s general ignorance about the crime, mean fewer than one in ten of those who sexually abuse children ever get convicted or registered. When a child is placed in foster care, either with strangers or relatives, there is a real chance the child is being handed over to someone dangerous. This partially explains the astoundingly bad outcomes from foster care across the nation.
Certainly, doing nothing to help these high-risk babies isn’t good. But in our rush to penalize mothers and rescue babies, no one is talking about prevention. Mothers who participate in a maternal home visiting program are more likely to successfully quit drugs. They are more likely to bond with their baby, cherish that relationship and parent successfully. And if they cannot parent successfully, the intense monitoring the home visitors provide ensures the baby is protected.
As journalists document “new” problems, it’s easy to ignore old solutions. And ignoring solutions ensures more victims.