WJTV News Channel 12 - Moms of drug-exposed newborns could get jail time

Moms of drug-exposed newborns could get jail time

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One hundred eighty six- that's the number of drug exposed babies in Northeast Tennessee hospitals last week.

Local representatives are trying to get a law passed that would allow mothers of these babies to be prosecuted.

On any given day, 30 to 40 percent of babies in the NICU at the Niswonger Children's Hospital have been exposed to drugs before even leaving their mother's womb.

The side affects- "irritability, high pitched cry, seizures, lack of sleep, fidgetiness, weight loss, diarrhea" Neonatologist Dr. Des Bharti said.

The number of babies diagnosed with this condition, Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, in the last decade in Tennessee has gone from just more than 100 in 2003, to 731 from the beginning of 2013 to now, 25 percent of those babies in North East Tennessee.

"There has to be some deterrent, there has to be some accountability. if there's not what's going to keep this from growing?" Sullivan County District Attorney Barry Staubus said.

Staubus is working with legislators to come up with some legal accountability for the problem

"What we're looking for is a legislative solution that allows mothers the opportunity to get long term treatment so that the children can be taken care of so they don't repeat the problem. However if they don't complete the program or they're repeat offenders we could prosecute those and hold those mother responsible," Staubus said.

Dr. Bharti said the majority of drug exposed babies he sees are from mothers taking legal, prescription drugs.

"Prosecuting a mother for taking drugs is not going to work," Bharti said. "They are just people who have had trouble, who have had pain, and they were given medicine. And that medicine hooked them on."

Dr. Bharti said addiction is a sickness and the mothers should be treated that way--not prosecuted.

"We need to treat these people as sick people with medical problem, like you have a flu and you need to rest or you have some other problem and you need to go to the doctor and get treatment. Same way these moms and these babies, they need to be treated appropriately," Bharti said

"I think the primary emphasis should be saving the child, holding the mother responsible, regardless of the circumstances she gets addicted or uses the drugs and get help, but if she will not get help, then I think that we owe it to the baby, we owe it to that child to have a decent life and I think we owe it to future babies to say if you do this there's punishment but here's another way out," Staubus said.

He said if passed, the program will give mother's a choice.

"The mother has a choice to go get help or not abuse the drug. The child that gets born on drugs has no choice, and so my primary focus is on the child whose first experience at birth is that of being high on drugs or getting a withdrawal," Staubus said.

Staubus said. without a consequence there won't be a solution.           

Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey and Representatives Jon Lundberg and Tony Shipley are working on the bill which will go before the legislature in January.

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