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Addiction, Treatment and Child Abuse

October 27, 2014 | Posted In Criminal Law - Criminal Law

When a mother who is addicted to drugs finds out that she is pregnant, one of the first steps in preparing for the birth of her child is to get clean.  Throughout the state of New Jersey, there are clinics, supplemental medications, and doctor-sponsored support programs available to addicted individuals for just that purpose. That said, when an expectant mother takes steps to protect her child from her addictive habits throughout the pregnancy, it would seem that the last thing she plans to do is cause her baby harm. But now, the New Jersey Supreme Court is hearing arguments on whether a mother whose baby was born with an addiction as a result can be charged with child abuse, criminal defense lawyers in New Jersey report.

The Case: DYFS v. Y.N.

In Division of Youth and Family Services v. Y.N., a 2011 case, a New Jersey mother, Y.N., was charged with criminal abuse and neglect of her son after he was born with a methadone addiction and severe withdrawal symptoms. Before she discovered that she was pregnant in 2010, Y.N. was addicted to both painkillers and heroin. As part of her treatment plan to get clean and protect her baby throughout her pregnancy, Y.N. began using methadone while under the supervision of a physician at her medical facility. The physician told her that methadone was preferable to quitting cold turkey, as sudden withdrawal symptoms could be harmful to her baby.

When Y.N.’s son was born, he suffered from serious withdrawal symptoms, and remained in the hospital for the first 47 days of his life. The doctors told Y.N. that her methadone use had caused her son’s health crisis, and ultimately, DYFS got involved. Both a trial court and the Appellate Division in New Jersey found that Y.N.’s actions in taking the methadone constituted abuse, and she was charged with neglect and child abuse. Now, the case is before the state Supreme Court, and criminal defense lawyers in New Jersey say that the point of contention is the previous court’s decision that it did not matter whether the drug—in this case methadone—was taken legally or illegally.

The Appellate Division, in deciding to uphold the abuse charges, found that Y.N.’s actions were harmful to her baby, even though she was acting under doctor's orders. But the state Supreme Court judges heard testimony from members of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women who stated that methadone treatment is a reasonable course of action for mothers who want to get clean and keep their babies from drug-related harm throughout their pregnancies. However, the appellate judges say that the entirety of the situation should be looked at in making a decision, and that each case needs to be considered individually.

Depending on the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision, the ruling could set a precedent for pregnant and addicted women throughout the state. Because the drug crisis is on the rise, and supplemental treatments are a popular and effective option, more and more cases like Y.N.’s, while tragic, are not surprising, and they need to be defined as to their criminality.

At the law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, our criminal defense lawyers represent persons who have been charged with drug related crimes, and mothers who have been labeled abusive for their attempts to get clean during pregnancy. Contact an attorney at HCK for a free, no-strings consultation in your case today.

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