The Story of Just Another New Mother Caught In Alabama’s Drug War

By Victoria Kim 10/06/15

Why did the state of Alabama send Casey Shehi to jail and take away her son?

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Casey Shehi is just another Alabama woman caught up in the state’s “chemical endangerment of a child” statute, the country’s toughest criminal law on prenatal drug use. AL.com and ProPublica teamed up to tell her story and explore the impact of the state’s chemical-endangerment statute.

Shehi had swallowed two halves of a Valium during the late stages of what had been a difficult pregnancy. AL.com details the difficult circumstances—physical and emotional stress, lack of sleep, pregnancy-related hypertension—that made her reach for her boyfriend’s Valium.

That was nearly forgotten until her son, James, was born. The maternity nurse informed her that “they were going to have to take him back to the nursery to produce some urine because I had a positive drug screen for benzodiazepines,” Shehi said.

The lab report came back negative; James was clean. The nurse assured Shehi that “everything [was] cool.” The next day, when Shehi went home with baby James, she was paid a visit by a social worker from the state child welfare agency, the Department of Human Resources. After listening to Shehi’s story, she said, “I understand the pain you are in, and I understand what’s going on. I won’t take the baby away,” Shehi’s mother, Ann Sharpe, recalled.

But it wasn’t over. A few weeks later, investigators from the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office showed up at Shehi’s job and took her to jail. She was charged with exposing her baby to controlled substances in the womb.

The intent of Alabama’s “chemical endangerment of a child” statute, passed in 2006 in response to the state’s urgent meth problem, was to penalize parents who set up DIY meth labs in their homes, making it a felony to “knowingly, recklessly, or intentionally” expose a child to a “controlled substance, chemical substance, or drug paraphernalia.” It is a felony punishable by one to 10 years in prison if the baby suffers no ill effects, 10 to 20 years if the baby shows signs of exposure or harm, or 10 to 99 years if the baby dies.

Even though the state child welfare agency determined that James could remain in Shehi’s care, she had an open custody case involving her preschool-age son. Following her arrest, the judge overseeing those arrangements issued an emergency order granting Shehi’s ex-husband sole custody without even a hearing.

For the next 12 months, Shehi struggled to hold down a full-time job while trying to regain parental rights to her older son and coping with the public humiliation of having her mugshot seen by members of her community.

Under Alabama’s chemical-endangerment statute, the state charges mothers whose newborns test positive for not just meth, but also cocaine, opioids, and pot. The law authorizes the state to strip a woman of custody of all her children, not just her newborn, since chemical endangerment is considered a form of child abuse.

As a result, hundreds of women have been prosecuted in Alabama. The law has even been used to deny a woman the right to have an abortion.

Steve Marshall, the district attorney of Marshall County—an area hit especially hard by meth addiction—said the goal wasn’t to throw women in prison, but to use the threat of incarceration to force them into treatment. “We have clearly used it [the chemical-endangerment statute] a little bit different than it was designed,” said Marshall. “That, in and of itself, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”

The implementation of the chemical-endangerment statute varies by county. In Birmingham, a city with “urban-level drug problems,” law enforcement does not aggressively pursue such cases—authorities there charged only two women with chemical endangerment of an unborn child in nine years. But in suburban Shelby County and Etowah County, where Shehi lives, the approach is much more aggressive.

Law enforcement in Etowah County vowed to aggressively pursue all chemical-endangerment cases, starting from pregnancy. Across the way in Marshall County, however, Shehi would have been left alone because no substances were found in James’ system. Authorities there are more concerned if the baby tests positive, not the mother.

“The significant factor for us is, does the baby test positive?” said Marshall. If the baby’s test is clean, drug abuse is unlikely. “A therapeutic dose is much less likely to ever show up in the system of the child,” he said.

Eventually, Shehi’s case was dismissed and her lawyer was able to persuade a judge to award her full custody of James. Her legal fight for her son has been put on hold, but she sees him often. But the “justice” dispensed by the state of Alabama for swallowing a single Valium has left Shehi mired in debt—including her $10,000 bond, lawyers, and mandatory drug tests which cost $75 each time—and her relationship with her boyfriend, James’ father, badly damaged.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr

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