Nurses Condemn Criminal Charges Against Mothers With Addiction

By Paul Gaita 04/19/19

The threat of arrest and sentencing has created what the AAN dubbed a "culture of fear and barriers" for pregnant and nursing mothers.

a group of nurses

The Washington, D.C.-based American Academy of Nursing (AAN) called for an end to criminal and civil charges against pregnant women and mothers based on drug use.

The 2,700-member organization outlined its position in a press release, which stated that legal action against pregnant women with substance use disorder (SUD) has resulted in arrests and jail time that have deterred them from seeking essential health services.

The AAN's policy outlined recommendations to help reverse that trend, including increasing funding for mental health agencies and training for nurses in regard to substance use disorder.

In the press release, the AAN noted that the opioid epidemic has placed substance use disorder in the national spotlight, but in the absence of a "public health response," expecting and parenting women with SUD have been subjected to criminal and civil actions, including arrests and incarceration.

Currently, a number of states, including Tennessee, Alabama, Wisconsin, Ohio and Kentucky have laws in place that consider drug use during pregnancy as grounds for child abuse protection.

The threat of arrest and sentencing has created what the AAN dubbed a "culture of fear and barriers" for pregnant and nursing mothers, who may avoid "essential health services" over concerns of prosecution.

As the press release noted, "Early entry into maternity care plays a vital role in long-term health and social outcomes," a notion supported by scientific research that shows that preschool-aged children (3-5 years old) with supportive mothers show significant increases in areas of the brain related to learning, memory and emotional regulation.

To facilitate that crucial level of interaction, the AAN recommended a shift in public health policy away from punitive measures toward mothers and in the direction of recovery and treatment.

The academy offered policy suggestions for federal and state agencies, as well as for individual providers. These included increased funding for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and expanded access to its Clinical Guidance for Treating Pregnant and Parenting Women with Opioid Use Disorder and Their Infants, as well as increased funding for community-based treatment programs for women with SUD and their children.

Additionally, the AAN called on nurses to make sure that clinical assessments of women with SUD are "accurate and comprehensive," and to keep providers in concert with a "therapeutic health justice approach."

"The Academy is helping to shape the conversation around providing care to pregnant and parenting women and reducing the stigma of SUDs in the age of the opioid epidemic," the press release's authors concluded.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.