Pregnant moms using drugs need help, not jail
When we became a foster family three years ago, I was certain of at least one thing: mothers who used drugs while they were pregnant should have their babies taken away. I had never met any of these moms before but I couldn’t conceive how anyone who loved their child could expose them to drugs. Certainly our home would be a better place for their baby, I thought. Ironically, it was fostering a baby exposed to drugs and meeting his mom that made me question our punitive approach to pregnant women struggling with addiction. I’m convinced now that arresting these moms, or categorically putting their babies in foster care without further investigation, is not reducing harm. It’s making things worse for these children.
In November, Nikki Cox-Musgrove from Pearl was sentenced to 15 years in prison for obtaining a controlled substance by fraud and exposing her unborn child to opioids. Her addiction, which led to doctor shopping and using while pregnant, was treated by our laws as criminal activity instead of the serious health crisis it was. And that difference just took a child’s mother away for 15 years.
The best case scenario for babies is that their moms aren’t using drugs. But if they are using, even while pregnant, then our best approach for reducing harm to the child is to help them and get them into treatment immediately. Instead, we use threats of criminal punishment, which only pushes moms AWAY from prenatal care that could reduce harm. How can we expect these moms to seek help when they’re seeing mugshots of moms just like them, on statewide news stories, being imprisoned? That’s terrifying. We can’t terrify and traumatize people out of addiction. We’ve tried that for decades, and it has failed spectacularly while leaving millions of destroyed lives in its wake.
Sometimes when pregnant mothers use drugs, their babies are born dependent on those drugs. The New York Times reported in July that hospitals in Kentucky and New Hampshire are trying a new approach with these newborns, with promising results. Instead of taking dependent babies away from their moms at birth, they’re keeping them together in low-stimulation private rooms and teaching moms how to comfort, nurture, and bond with their babies. They’ve found that surrounding moms and babies with this kind of compassionate support has significantly reduced the number of newborns who need any drugs after they’re born to taper their dependence. We may be separating these babies from the medicine they need most, their mom.
I’ll never forget bringing one of our newborn foster sons to his first visit with his mom and watching her sprint across the parking lot to my van and cover him with kisses. Over time I saw that she was a mom just like me, whose love for her son was as deep as my love for my own sons, even though she couldn’t beat her addiction while she was pregnant. Drug addiction does not equal a lack of love. It is a complex health crisis, and should be handled by doctors and therapists, not the criminal justice system.
Our goal should be reducing harm to babies and reducing harm to parents. Who benefits from Nikki in prison for 15 years? She doesn’t. Her child doesn’t. The taxpayers don’t. Moms like her are driven further from help. And when our policies destabilize families that are already vulnerable, the broader community suffers too. If this was justice by law, then our laws are unjust and we must demand change.