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September 30, 2014

NAPW Asks: "Who Among Us Will Take a Stand?"

Are you in Alabama? Do you know or love someone in Alabama?

National Advocates for Pregnant Women has documented more than 130 arrests of pregnant women in Alabama under a law that the state Supreme Court judicially expanded (with citation to biblical authority) to permit the arrests of pregnant women who use any controlled substance - even prescribed medications. Many of these pregnant women and new mothers are held in jail with bail set at outrageously high levels. Some mothers have been sentenced to long terms in Tutwiler prison, a maximum-security prison where women are at risk for rape, sexual assault, and other human rights violations. While NAPW is working with local lawyers to defend the women who have already been arrested, we know this is not enough. As a result, NAPW and the Carr Center for Reproductive Justice at NYU School of Law are announcing a call for plaintiffs. We are seeking brave women, doctors, and methadone treatment providers to join an affirmative civil rights lawsuit to declare this law unconstitutional and stop new arrests of pregnant women. Please take a stand and join this lawsuit and/or help us spread the word. For more information about how to join the lawsuit, see "National Advocates for Pregnant Women Seeks Plaintiffs to Challenge Alabama Law Used to Arrest and Prosecute Pregnant Women."

But please do not think terrible things only happen to pregnant women in Alabama or the "red" states. As this story in The Guardian reports, quoting NAPW's Director of Legal Advocacy Sara Ainsworth, the New Jersey Supreme Court heard oral argument in the Y.N. case in early September. This case raises the question of whether the state can treat pregnant women who obtain methadone treatment as child abusers in the state's child welfare system. On the one hand, it was clear that NAPW's amicus brief on behalf of more than 70 organizations and experts played a huge role not only with the court, but also with the state. At oral argument, both the lawyer for the state and the guardian for the child referred to this amicus brief and essentially conceded that medically approved methadone treatment could not be a form of child abuse. We are hopeful of winning on that ground. There is strong indication, however, that the court will continue interpreting state law to permit child abuse and neglect statutes to apply to pregnant women in other contexts. There is no deadline for a decision from the State Supreme Court, but we know that the need for NAPW's work in New Jersey will not end with this case.

Finally, we are happy to let you know that NAPW's work helped zealous lawyer Ron Piper in Montana get criminal charges dismissed against a woman who was arrested when she was only 12 weeks pregnant for allegedly "putting her unborn fetus at 'substantial risk of serious bodily injury or death.'"

Expect to hear more from us soon, as we continue to work tirelessly to advance reproductive justice for pregnant women and their families.

PRESS RELEASE: Wisconsin Alicia Beltran Case Federal District Court Avoids Ruling on Constitutionality

September 30, 2014

CONTACT: Lynn M. Paltrow, JD
(212) 255-9252

Today the Eastern District of Wisconsin federal court dismissed as moot a petition filed by Alicia Beltran challenging her detention under a provision of the Wisconsin Children's Code that allows the State to take women into custody from the earliest stages of pregnancy. Ms. Beltran challenged her detention under the Wisconsin law that permitted her arrest, detention, and involuntary in-patient medical treatment based upon the unproven charge that she "habitually lacked self-control in the use of alcohol or controlled substances."

The matter began when Alicia Beltran, a 28-year-old pregnant woman, sought early prenatal care and confided in health care workers about prior use of painkillers and her efforts to end that use on her own. Instead of commending Ms. Beltran for her progress, her medical practitioners reported her to the Department of Human Services, as a result of which she was arrested on July 18, 2013 by Wisconsin law enforcement officials. Ms. Beltran was forcibly taken into custody when she was 14 weeks pregnant, put into handcuffs and shackles, and brought to a court hearing. Although a lawyer had already been appointed to represent her fetus, Ms. Beltran had no right to counsel -- and therefore had no attorney -- at the court appearance which resulted in her long-term detention. Without testimony from any medical expert or without giving Ms. Beltran any chance to challenge any allegations against her, a family court referee ordered Ms. Beltran to be detained at an inpatient drug treatment program two hours from her home and from her prenatal care provider.

Following Ms. Beltran's federal court habeas filing and national press attention to the case, the state permitted Ms. Beltran to leave in-patient treatment and, subsequently, the State dropped the petition against Ms. Beltran. By that time, however, Ms. Beltran had been detained against her wishes far from family for more than 70 days. It was on the ground that Ms. Beltran had eventually been released and the charges against her dropped that the federal court today dismissed the case as moot.

The court ruling today acknowledged that "if Beltran's allegations are true, what happened to her is extremely disturbing." Nevertheless, the Court dismissed the case without addressing Ms. Beltran's factual allegations or resolving the constitutionality of the underlying Wisconsin law. The Court concluded that it was not permitted to reach these issues because the Court no longer had the power to grant Ms. Beltran the specific relief of freeing her from detention.

"We are disappointed that the Court refused to address the constitutionality of the law, and instead avoided reaching a decision about a statute that permits the State to rip pregnant women from their homes, endangering them and their future children." said Lynn Paltrow, Executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women and a member of Ms. Beltran's legal team. She added that "the law does not even give pregnant women the right to counsel at the initial stages of the proceedings against them and most of the women who are detained while pregnant will have difficulty finding lawyers able to bring constitutional claims."

The Court suggested, however, that another civil rights action, potentially representing a class of women brought within the ambit of the law, might not present the same mootness issues. Ms. Beltran is currently considering her legal options in the wake of the decision.


September 8, 2014

Will the New Jersey Supreme Court Treat Pregnant Women Separately and Unequally?

Tomorrow, Tuesday September 9, 2014 at 1:00 pm EST, the New Jersey Supreme Court will hear oral argument in New Jersey Department of Youth and Family Services vs. Y.N that will determine whether New Jersey will become the only state in the U.S. to effectively ban pregnant women from receiving methadone treatment.

At the center of the case is a woman, identified by the court as Y.N., who had been struggling with a dependency on a prescribed opioid painkiller. When she found out she was pregnant, she followed medical advice and obtained methadone treatment. She gave birth to a healthy baby who was successfully treated for symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). NAS is a side effect of methadone treatment and other medications, such as those commonly prescribed to treat depression. Y.N. was reported to the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) and was judged to have abused her child.

According to DYFS and the lower court, that the newborn experienced symptoms of NAS -- which they define as "harm" -- was all that matters. The fact that Y.N. was following a medically approved and prescribed course of methadone treatment was deemed to be irrelevant.

NAPW with Lawrence S. Lustberg of Gibbons P.C., represents 76 organizations and experts in maternal, fetal, and child health, addiction treatment, and health advocacy as amici curiae (friends of the court) before the New Jersey Supreme Court. As the brief points out, DYFS's position and the lower court's decision fly in the face not only of the recommendations of the World Health Organization and the U.S. government, but of New Jersey's own policy. DYFS, the very same agency that targeted Y.N., collaborates with the New Jersey Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to provide and prioritize methadone treatment for pregnant women and parents involved in the child welfare system.

Tomorrow, September 9, 2014, Mr. Lustberg will urge the court to ensure that pregnant women, no less than others, have a right to seek and obtain medical care and to have decisions about them based on science, not stigma.

Oral arguments are open to the public, but if you are unable to make it to Trenton, NJ please join our Director of Legal Advocacy, Sara Ainsworth, in viewing the live webcast. It will be accessible via the New Jersey Supreme Court's webcast site. We will be tweeting on the hashtag #ScienceNotStigma to answer your questions about the proceedings.

Pregnant women, whether threatened with punishment through civil child welfare actions in New Jersey or arrest in Tennessee (see "The right's favorite new quack: Terri Lynn Weaver's dangerous baby 'science'"), need NAPW's support and zealous advocacy.

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