For this story, ProPublica and AL.com filed multiple public information requests to identify the more than 1,800 women arrested under the chemical endangerment law, then sifted through court records to find the cases related to pregnancy. The data showed that at least 479 new and expecting mothers have been prosecuted across Alabama since 2006, or more than three times the number previously identified. Many others have been investigated in the chemical-endangerment version of stop-and-frisk, their lives turned upside down by an intrusive — and women’s advocates say, unconstitutional — dragnet of drug testing without their knowledge or, sometimes, their explicit consent. The goal of the law is to protect children by removing them from unsafe settings and mothers too impaired and unstable to provide proper care. Prosecutors contend the law has been the impetus for hundreds of women to get treatment and restart their lives, with prison as the price for those who choose not to or who fail.
Yet there’s nothing in the statute to distinguish between an addict who puts her baby at grave risk and a stressed-out single mom who takes a harmless dose of a friend’s anti-anxiety medication. There are no standards for law enforcement officials or judges to follow: Is the presence of drugs in the mother’s body cause for charges if the baby tests clean? What test results are appropriate for medical providers to report and when? Should a mother face charges even when she was using a prescription drug under a doctor’s supervision? Local prosecutors and courts have wide discretion.
Some of the most wrenching effects of the law can be seen in the area of parental rights. Chemical endangerment is considered a form of child abuse, and a woman accused of exposing her baby to drugs in utero is at risk of losing custody of all her children, not just her newborn.
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