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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Court to Weigh Whether Methadone During Pregnancy Equals Child Abuse

In a case closely watched by child safety advocates across the country, the New Jersey Supreme Court is slated to decide whether a pregnant mother who underwent methadone maintenance therapy during gestation should be found guilty in family court of abuse and neglect of her infant son, who was born dependent on the drug.

In Division of Youth and Family Services v. Y.N., both the trial court as well as the state's appellate division have ruled the mother's conduct was a form of abuse and neglect, given the child was born with withdrawal symptoms characterized as severe. He had to be hospitalized for an additional 47 after he was born.

Our Brooklyn ACS defense attorneys recognize the legal reasoning and outcome here could be important for local courts in determining how to proceed in similar cases.

While other courts have held mothers who abuse drugs during pregnancy can be held accountable in criminal and family courts, this case is somewhat unique in that the mother's use of the drug was under the supervision of a doctor. At the time she conceived, she was abusing heroin and painkillers. When she learned she was with child, she began seeing a doctor. Several months later, she started on a methadone treatment program, and entered into a medical facility.

Physicians and other medical staffers warned her that if she immediately stopped using all substances, she could have a miscarriage. Not wanting to risk losing her child, she reportedly believed the best option was to undergo chemical dependency treatment under the care of a doctor.

However, both lower courts held it did not matter whether the drugs were taken legally or illegally. As the woman's criminal defense attorney would later argue to the high court, the appellate court's decision effectively held "medical treatment equals harm." Here, the mother had been told the safest course of action was methadone treatment.

Chief justices posed several possible scenarios:

Would a pregnant woman avoid liability for illegal use of drugs if a doctor told her to continue taking them because withdrawal would be too dangerous?

Would a mother who used methadone on her own, without consultation of a physician, be similarly protected?

Interceding as amicus, the National Advocates for Pregnant Women argued the woman should be cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, asserting methadone treatment overseen by a physician was reasonable for someone in her circumstances.

However, prosecutors representing the state's Division of Child Protection and Permanency, requested the finding be upheld. They say at its core, the case is about the serious risk of harm to the fetus. It was noted the mother had a six-year history of drug abuse, and used other illegal substances throughout part of her pregnancy. The prosecutor asserted to the court the mother was unwilling or unable to provide necessary protection to the child. She indicated other factors played into the final determination of abuse and neglect, but conceded the mother's methadone use was part of it.

It's worth noting there are methadone treatment centers in New York that specifically provide care to pregnant women.

Those who have undergone this treatment and are now enduring an ACS investigation should contact an experienced family law attorney as soon as possible.

Our Brooklyn ACS defense attorneys can be reached at (718) 864-2011.

Additional Resources:

Case Tests Whether Methadone Treatment During Pregnancy is Abuse, Sept. 10, 2014, By Michael Booth, New Jersey Law Journal

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