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Cocaine doesn't cause brain damage, studies find; poverty does

Published: Friday, May 2 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

The most dangerous effect of stigmatizing "crack moms," she says, is that it has led to criminal punishment for mothers whose babies test positive, which can break apart families by sending single moms to jail and their children to foster care.

Dr. Jeanne Flavin, a professor of sociology at Fordham University and author of "Our Bodies, Our Crimes," studies women's legal status and public health. Her research follows cases like that of 28-year-old Alicia Beltran who was handcuffed at her home last summer after she reported a previous pill addiction during a prenatal checkup, even though her drug tests later came out negative.

"A drug test doesn't tell you how someone parents," says Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. It's much more nuanced, she says, and a drug test doesn't tell how much someone is misusing drugs, or if they do in front of their children.

Wisconsin, along with Minnesota, Oklahoma and South Dakota, have laws that allow authorities to confine pregnant women for substance abuse. Alabama's "chemical endangerment of a child" law has been used to prosecute 100 women who gave birth to babies that tested positive for drugs, sending many of those mothers to prison.

"There are people who struggle with drugs and alcohol who are still fit parents," Paltrow says, noting that drug use is not the same thing as drug addiction.

Treatment and unintended consequences

Flavin acknowledges that drug use in the home is not ideal, but separating mothers and children can be even worse. "The harm and damage done by separating a mother and child is hard to overstate," she said.

What Flavin would like to see instead is more treatment for mothers and less punitive action. The time when a woman learns that she's pregnant and decides that she wants to carry the baby to term is a vulnerable, meaningful time, she says.

"A lot of women are inspired to eat better during that time, to take better care of themselves." Those are the times when she is most open to help and support, and the threats of arrest or having her children taken away is a deterrent. "Threats won't deter her from taking drugs, but they will deter her from going to the doctor," she says.

Twenty states have blocked the use of criminal child abuse or related laws against pregnant women, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecolologists states that "incarceration or threat of incarceration have proved to be ineffective in reducing the incidence of alcohol or drug abuse."

Punitive measures are especially unfortunate, says Flavin, because often they target families that are suffering from the stresses and complications of poverty in the first place.

"I wish that we would insist that our responses were based on evidence and science rather than stimgma, and think about the impact on the most socially vulnerable people when we are passing these laws," she says. "It bothers me that when a woman might be most open to services and help, our responses are the most harsh."

Email: laneanderson@deseretnews.com

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