The Weber-Morgan Child Abuse Council is considering a proposal that would expand Utah's legal definition of victims of child neglect to include newborns exposed to illegal drugs before birth.
At present, a woman who abuses drugs during pregnancy and gives birth to a drugged infant isn't guilty of child abuse or neglect, although the state has some latitude in dealing with babies exposed to illicit drugs.The northern Utah council, a private non-profit group that coordinates services for abused children, acknowledges such a change in the law probably wouldn't address the problem of prescription drug abuse, which is prevalent in Utah.
In addition, there are questions about how to characterize expectant mothers who abuse drugs because Utah law holds that childhood begins at birth.
"If you address the problem by calling the fetus a child, a lot of kids are at risk because a lot of mothers out there are doing things that aren't good for unborn babies," said Rich Parmley, a deputy Weber County attorney assigned to the juvenile court.
He said imposing criminal sanctions on mothers who expose their babies to drugs could prompt some women to delivering their children outside of hospitals so they don't get caught and discourage mothers from checking into drug treatment programs for fear they'll be prosecuted.
But Marilyn Sandberg, director of the Weber-Morgan group, said expanding the definition of neglect would offer help, not punishment, for mother and child.
"It allows what we think is a reasonable intervention and that's the authority to provide resources to help rather than take your child away unless there is continued abuse," she said.
Although Parmley said his office hasn't had any trouble getting jurisdiction over drug-exposed babies, he said such a law might not survive a serious challenge.
Meantime, the Utah Department of Social Services is discussing the possibility of amending the child abuse reporting law to allow infant drug screening - even without the mother's permission.
The Division of Family Services asked the attorney general's office for an opinion on the legality of such a practice after some physicians questioned whether they could be sued for invasion of privacy.
Utah is considered progressive by some because it requires health professionals to notify the state when they treat infants suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome or drug withdrawal.