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Rights of Pregnant Women to Seek Substance Abuse Treatment Upheld by NJ Supreme Court!

on Tue, 12/23/2014 - 13:20

The New Jersey Supreme Court on December 22, 2014, decided New Jersey Division of Youth & Family Services v. Y.N., an important decision for pregnant mothers struggling with substance abuse.  The Court held that a pregnant woman cannot be found guilty of abuse or neglect—and placed on the child-abuse Central Registry—merely because she enrolled in a methadone treatment program.  And that is true even if the woman’s child is born suffering from symptoms associated with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome—an unfortunate, but expected, side-effect of methadone treatment.  The Court explained that the abuse-or-neglect statute requires that the Division prove that “the child was impaired or in imminent danger of becoming impaired because the parent (1) failed to exercise a minimum degree of care and (2) unreasonably inflicted or allowed to be inflicted harm, or created a substantial risk of inflicting harm, on the child.”  As applied to pregnant mothers enrolled in methadone programs, the Court held that the mere fact that a child was harmed as a result of prescription methadone use—that is, born with symptoms associated with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome—does not mean the mother “failed to exercise a minimum degree of care.”  That is because “[s]ometimes a parent may cause injury to a child to protect that child from a greater harm.”  And that is precisely the case in methadone-treatment programs:  The pregnant mother risks Neonatal Assistance Syndrome in her newborn in order to protect the newborn from even greater harm as a result of rapid withdrawal.  Summarizing its holding, the Court stated that “[a]bsent 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.”  This rule protects most pregnant mothers enrolling in a substance-abuse program from an abuse-or-neglect finding.  The Court’s decision is an unequivocal win for the vast majority of pregnant women who seek methadone maintenance treatment.   They may seek and receive medically necessary treatment free from Division interference, even if Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome results.  Read the decision at