A New Jersey State Supreme Court decision means a sigh of relief for pregnant women with an opiate addiction, no matter where they live. It sets precedent that other courts will likely follow; protecting women who take steps to overcome opiate addiction while pregnant.
The case originated with a woman who sought methadone treatment after she discovered she was pregnant. After her baby was born and underwent treatment for methadone withdrawal and some symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome, the hospital staff reported her to the local child protective services office. The New Jersey State Division of Child Protection and Permanency cited her for child abuse, and the court that heard the case found the woman guilty of child abuse.
You Are Not Alone
On an appeal that went all the way to the state’s Supreme Court, the woman’s case received attention from the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), and also the American Psychiatric Association. All three of these powerful organizations joined to file a friend of the court brief urging the state’s Supreme Court to overturn the unfair decision.
The ultimate decision confirmed that if a woman realizes she has an addiction and she participates in a bona fide methadone treatment program including full disclosure to the healthcare professionals who oversee the program, she cannot be charged with child abuse, unless there are circumstances other than her addiction that would apply.
Methadone treatment programs typically give first priority to any pregnant woman who calls for help with opiate addiction, regardless of payment issues or any waiting list they may have. It’s vital for those women to have immediate access to medical attention and care, including management of their withdrawal from opiates.
How Opiate Addiction Affects the Mother and Baby
The earlier in her pregnancy that she gets help, the better her pregnancy outcome will be. She will no longer be getting drugs illegally on the street or engage in risk-taking behaviors such as sharing dirty needles. She will no longer be dealing with unscrupulous dealers who sell questionable product mixed with who-knows-what. Methadone treatment helps her manage her cravings and withdrawal symptoms, and she will also receive counseling to help her make better decisions in getting ready for her baby’s birth. The methadone program’s medical director will ensure that she gets good neonatal care. With an entire team of medical professionals helping the mother to prepare, the outcome of the birth is better positioned for a positive outcome.
As a new mother in a methadone treatment program, you can expect your baby to undergo withdrawal from the methadone within 24 to 48 hours after delivery. The symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) include the infant’s irritability and an increased startle reflex, accompanied by an unsettling shrill cry. The baby may have trouble sleeping initially and will be easily disturbed by outside stimulation. Some babies scratch themselves from increased restlessness. In the worst-case scenarios, babies have been known to undergo seizures.
The important thing, however, is that medical staff on hand know about the mother’s opiate addiction and prepare to manage the baby’s withdrawal. Steps can be taken to monitor the respiratory and digestive systems, which might also be affected, and provide the care necessary to return the newborn to a normal range.
Getting addiction under control during pregnancy means the mother can go home with a healthy infant given a clean bill of health. The mother remains in recovery through continued methadone treatment and counseling and raises a happy, healthy baby.
If you are the person who needs that help—or if you know a pregnant woman who suffers from opiate addiction—it takes just a phone call to get immediate help and change the course of two people’s lives—yours and your baby’s.