Activists in North Carolina are scrambling to stop the state from passing a law that would allow the state to charge parents with abuse if their infants are born “substance-exposed.” House Bill 918 has been making its way through the North Carolina legislature and may be up for a final senate vote as early as April. If signed into law, it stands to dramatically change the way many child welfare cases are handled, and to codify discrimination against pregnant people who use drugs.
The bill seeks to make three major changes: It would define illicit drug use during pregnancy as child abuse regardless of actual harm to the infant; remove the state’s obligation to engage in family reunification efforts when a child was exposed to drugs; and significantly shorten the amount of time it takes to begin terminating parental rights.
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Although the bill’s stated purpose is the protection of infants, opponents say it does the exact opposite: Separating infants from their parents causes potentially irreversible trauma to a child’s brain. In addition, this type of bill deters pregnant drug users from seeking much-needed medical care for fear of punishment, and denies families the resources to heal from addiction and parent their children to their best capacities.
The North Carolina Urban Survivor’s Union, a harm reduction organization dedicated to protecting the rights of drug users in North Carolina, is doing everything they can to stop this bill from becoming law. They are reaching out to senators, gathering signatories on a letter of opposition (which I joined), and preparing to implore the governor to veto it, failing efforts to stop it from passing. To them and many other harm reduction and reproductive rights advocates, this bill represents a growing national trend to use fear-mongering as a basis for stripping pregnant people of crucial rights, even well beyond pregnancy.
Aly Peeler, advocacy coordinator for the North Carolina Urban Survivor’s Union, notes that although the bill is written to target drug users, it has the potential to affect a much larger population: “It opens the door for prosecuting people who can get pregnant for anything that can harm a fetus. What if you’re not exercising enough, what if you don’t have healthcare when we know that prenatal care is the biggest determinant of fetal health? We are really invested in stopping the bill.”
Allowing the state to define in utero substance exposure as child neglect would permit child services to remove newborn infants from their parents’ custody at birth. Should this pass, North Carolina would join 23 other states in defining prenatal substance exposure as civil child maltreatment. This has a ripple effect: A recent study from the RAND corporation discovered that areas with punitive policies toward drug use during pregnancy, such as conflating it with civil or criminal child maltreatment, saw higher rates of infant withdrawal. Patients who fear being punished for using drugs avoid medical care, whether that means continuing to use drugs instead of engaging in treatment, or avoiding prenatal care altogether.
It is a measure that invites a host of problems, including the traumatic interruption of the dyad between a birthing parent and newborn. Contact between newborns and the parent who birthed them is crucial during the first days of life; this is especially true for infants who experience withdrawal from substances they were exposed to during pregnancy, whether or not those substances were prescribed and taken as recommended. Nursing and skin-to-skin contact have been shown to reduce symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), or infant withdrawal.
Many hospitals around the country have begun to change their NAS protocols to be more inclusive of families, implementing “mother as medicine” approaches to treating withdrawal symptoms that have led to dramatic decreases in the amount of time infants diagnosed with NAS require medical intervention. The University of North Carolina Children’s Hospital-Chapel Hill recently implemented a new approach to treating NAS called “Eat, Sleep, Console,” which heavily integrates familial support as part of the treatment for infant opioid withdrawal. House Bill 918, however, would undermine that medicine by denying parents access to their newborns, potentially even while the baby is still in the hospital, despite the new protocol’s positive outcomes.
The absolutist attitude toward drug addiction appears to favor stigma over science. It states that in order for a substance exposure-based neglect charge to be substantiated, child services must be able to demonstrate that the parent is “unable to discharge parental responsibilities due to a history of chronic drug abuse.” This would allow a parent’s history of addiction to be weaponized against them, something which is generally not done with other medical conditions unless there is a similar element of stigma involved, such as that which is seen in some cases of intellectual or physical disabilities.
It also opens the door to using addiction treatment history as evidence of an inability to parent. Addiction is defined as a chronic relapsing disorder. It is not uncommon for patients to attend more than one treatment program before achieving long-term remission, or to require long-term medication management with methadone or buprenorphine in the case of opioid addiction. When these histories become confused with the definition of parental fitness, it labels people with substance use disorders as undeserving to parent simply because of their condition.
In an interview for a story published by The Appeal, obstetrician and addiction medicine physician Mishka Terplan described recovery as “finding community connection, purpose, and meaning…Motherhood fits right into that, and yet we have this system that has labeled certain people and populations as being less deserving of that than others, so we are going to even take that away from them, or make it yet another battle in a grossly unfair universe.”
Stating that child services is not required to engage in reunification efforts further codifies this dismissive attitude toward people with substance use disorders. Normally, when a child welfare department opens a case on a parent that involves the removal of a child from the home, the department is required to pursue reunification efforts before moving to forcibly adopt the child to another family.
This means that the department has an obligation to provide referrals and financial assistance for any services the parent is required to complete in order to regain custody. In cases that involve parental drug use, this typically means that the child welfare department must provide timely and appropriate referrals for addiction treatment, and often must also cover the costs of such treatment. But North Carolina’s new bill would remove this burden from the state in cases that involve “exposure to nonmedical substances in utero.”
“[A pregnant person with an untreated substance use disorder] can’t stop using [solely due to pregnancy] because that’s one of the defining features of having a use disorder, and people with a use disorder — they need treatment,” said Terplan, describing with eloquent simplicity the inherent injustice of removing a child due to parental drug addiction, then refusing to provide treatment.
Amber Khan, a senior staff attorney at National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), has helped oppose bills like this in the past, like a 2017 bill that made substance use during pregnancy civil child neglect in Kentucky and forced mothers to enroll in drug treatment within 90 days of giving birth or face termination of parental rights. Khan said these bills “are counter-intuitive and dangerous and based on misinformation. They certainly do not address a substance use disorder. If the concern is a parent’s substance use disorder, these bills create a punitive system but don’t increase funding for care.”
Finally, North Carolina’s bill also decreases the amount of time it takes to permanently separate parent and child by terminating parental rights, an act that has been dubbed the “civil death penalty.” Currently, federal legislation known as the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) requires states to file for termination of parental rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months (it does not necessarily apply in situations of kinship care, when children are living with relatives). Some states have opted to shorten that time, and if HB 918 passes, North Carolina will join them. The bill will shorten the requirement to one year. It also gives foster parents the same rights as relatives, allowing them to petition for custody after only nine months.
“People don’t understand substance use,” said Louise Vincent, the executive director of the North Carolina Urban Survivor’s Union. “I find bills like this really manipulative…You start talking about pregnant women using drugs and people lose their mind. People don’t understand that love doesn’t cure addiction.”
Compounding all of this is the fact that these issues will not be faced by all populations equally. In North Carolina, for example, Black children comprise 33 percent of the foster care population, but only 23 percent of the state’s total population. This law would give the system further leeway to discriminate by race and class, issues already embedded into the child welfare system.
“We know that poor women and women of color are more likely to be suspected of drug use, so they’re more likely to be screened and more likely to be reported,” said Peeler. “The bill is really worrying partially because everyone really values trusting and confidentiality with their doctors and it wouldn’t afford that to people who can get pregnant.”
When legislation perpetuates the idea that addiction can be a chronic relapsing medical condition up until the point of pregnancy — when it becomes a moral failing and representative of a lack of appropriate maternal love — it fails to protect the community, which should be the basic function of the law. HB 918 and other similar laws defy science in favor of stigma and move the government one step closer to repealing reproductive agency in the United States. And, of course, it creates a new avenue for punishing drug users even while the criminal justice system finally, albeit slowly, begins to recognize that punitive measures are ineffective against addiction.
“This is certainly another part of the business as usual for the drug war,” emphasized Vincent.