The New Jersey Supreme Court late last month reversed an appellate division ruling that had found that a mother could be charged with child abuse because of effects from methadone treatment she had received while pregnant. National Advocates for Pregnant Women executive director Lynn Paltrow said of the state Supreme Court's unanimous ruling on Dec. 22, “This is an important victory, making clear that methadone treatment for pregnant women is health care, not harm.”
The New Jersey case involved a woman who had been taking prescription opioids and pursued methadone treatment based on medical advice after learning she was pregnant—she also had received substance abuse detox services in the past. Her baby was treated for withdrawal symptoms (neonatal abstinence syndrome), triggering a notification to the state's child protection division. That would lead to a 2011 court finding that the woman had abused her child because she received methadone treatment.
The state's appellate division affirmed the lower court's finding of abuse and neglect. But the state Supreme Court stated in last month's reversal, “Absent exceptional circumstances, a finding of abuse or neglect cannot be sustained based solely on a newborn's enduring methadone withdrawal following a mother's timely participation in a bona fide treatment program prescribed by a licensed healthcare professional to whom she has made full disclosure.”
The Supreme Court also rejected the appellate division's conclusion that in cases where a child exhibits impairment, it is irrelevant whether the drugs that caused the impairment came from a legal or illegal source.
Advocacy groups for pregnant women in recent months have argued against legislative initiatives around the country that they believe are unfairly punitive toward pregnant women who use substances, saying that these measures will drive women away from pursuing beneficial treatment services for fear of losing custody of their children.