A December 22 unanimous ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision, which had found that a mother could be charged with child abuse and neglect if her baby was born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a predictable and easily treatable condition.
In effect, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that it is not child abuse for a pregnant woman to be treated with methadone for opioid addiction—a victory for the mother in the case, known only as Y.N., and for the many opioid treatment program (OTP) advocates who sided with her in a Friends of the Court brief.
The case, New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. Y.N., centers around Y.N.’s OTP treatment with methadone. Y.N. had been dependent on opioid analgesics when she found out she was pregnant. Treatment with methadone was recommended, and she followed that medical advice.
Her baby was born healthy, and was treated for NAS, a condition that can result from a mother’s medical treatment with methadone or buprenorphine – or other opioids — during pregnancy. But Y.N. was reported to the Division of Child Protection and Permanency, formerly the Division of Youth and Family Services, which determined that she had abused her child.
The Friends of the Court brief was filed by National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) with Lawrence S. Lustberg of Gibbons P.C., on behalf of 76 experts in maternal and fetal health, public health, and drug treatment. The brief included a strong argument that reporting such cases to child welfare authorities would deter mothers from seeking methadone treatment, noting that medical authorities recommend such treatment for pregnant opioid-addicted women.
The decision doesn’t mean that pregnant women in New Jersey can’t be evaluated and judged based on their participation in an OTP, or on other issues. The court remanded the case back to the lower court to determine whether other evidence existed that would support a child neglect or abuse finding, such as the duration and timing of Y.N.’s treatment.
“This means that the fight to ensure health, rights, and justice for pregnant women in New Jersey is far from over,” according to the NAPW.
For the ruling, go to http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/opinions/supreme/A2413DCPPvYN.pdf
For the friends of the court brief, go to http://advocatesforpregnantwomen.org/briefs/DYFS%20v.%20YN%20-%20Amended%20Supplemental%20Brief%20and%20Appendices.pdf