In Alabama, anti-drug fervour and abortion politics have turned a meth-lab law into the country's harshest weapon against pregnant women
Casey Shehi’s son James was born in August 2014, remarkably robust even though he was four weeks premature. But the maternity nurse at Gadsden Regional Medical Center seemed almost embarrassed, and as she took the baby from his exhausted mother’s arms, Shehi felt a prick of dread.
“She said they were going to have to take him back to the nursery to produce some urine, because I had a positive drug screen for benzodiazepines,” Shehi, 37, recalled one evening a few months ago at a café near her mother’s home. She hadn’t been sleeping well; her brown hair hung lank past her shoulders, and her eyes were rimmed with worry. “I said: ‘That can’t be true. Can you please check it again? Run the screen again.’ ”
The nurse asked: Did she have a prescription for any form of benzo — Xanax or Klonopin or Ativan? No, Shehi insisted, there must be a mistake.
Then she remembered: the Valium.
One night a few weeks earlier, Shehi and her ex-husband got into a huge argument on the phone. She was in the late stages of what had been a difficult pregnancy; she was achy and bloated, and her ankles felt like they might explode. After the fight, she called her mother, Ann Sharpe, a retired teacher and guidance counselor who lived nearby. “She was really upset — ‘I’m miserable, I’m sick, I can’t sleep,’ ” Sharpe recalled. “I said, ‘Do you have something you can take?’ ” As Shehi later told investigators, she had swallowed half of one of her boyfriend’s Valiums to calm herself down.
Not long after, Shehi and her boyfriend and their various kids packed up the camper and drove 325 miles from Gadsden, in northeast Alabama, to the beach in Panama City, Florida, for one last vacation before the baby came. The weather was sweltering, the trailer — a grimy relic with an air conditioner that only worked when it wanted to — suffocating. Shehi was too keyed up to sleep, her 4-year-old son curled up beside her on the narrow bed. Finally, she reached for the other half of the tranquilizer.
As Shehi recounted the story, the maternity nurse told her, “Okay, okay.”
By that night, everything really did seem all right. Excited nurses woke Shehi and handed her the baby, swaddled in a light blanket. “They told me: ‘He’s good, he’s clean. You can have him now, no worries.’ ” Exposure to too much benzodiazepine
during pregnancy can sometimes cause newborns to be fussy or floppy-limbed. But occasional, small doses of diazepam (the generic name for Valium) are considered safe
. According to the lab report, James had nothing in his system. Shehi said the pediatrician reassured her, “Everything’s cool.”
The next day, Shehi and the baby went home, and someone from the Department of Human Resources, the state child welfare agency, paid a visit. In recent years, Alabama authorities have been aggressive about removing newborns from the custody of mothers who abuse drugs, typically placing a baby with a relative or foster family under a safety plan that can continue for months or years. The social worker listened to Shehi and Sharpe’s story and concluded that theirs wasn’t one of those situations. “She said: ‘I understand the pain you are in, and I understand what’s going on. I won’t take the baby away,’ ” Sharpe recalled.
But one morning a few weeks later, when Shehi was back at her job in a nursing home and the baby was with a sitter, investigators from the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office
showed up at the front desk with a warrant. She had been charged with “knowingly, recklessly, or intentionally” causing her baby to be exposed to controlled substances in the womb — a felony punishable in her case by up to 10 years in prison. The investigators led her to an unmarked car, handcuffed her and took her to jail.
Shehi had run afoul of Alabama’s “chemical endangerment of a child” statute, the country’s toughest criminal law on prenatal drug use. Passed in 2006 as methamphetamine ravaged Alabama communities, the law targeted parents who turned their kitchens and garages into home-based drug labs, putting their children at peril.
Within months, prosecutors and courts began applying the law to women who exposed their embryo or fetus to… Continue Reading…