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Is Prenatal Drug Exposure Considered Child Abuse?

In an interesting case, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 2013 that the state may not find that a newborn has been abused or neglected based solely on evidence of prenatal drug exposure without evidence of actual harm to the child.

In New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (NJDYFS) v. A.L., a child was born with detectable levels of cocaine metabolites. All other birth scores were good, and the baby appeared to have been well taken care of at home following birth. A month after the baby's birth , NJDYFS filed a complaint for "care and supervision" of both the children of A.L. (the mother).

At the hearing, the NJDYFS had no witnesses, made no allegations against A.L. for her behavior in the seven months following her baby's birht, and could prove no actual harm to the baby, relying on its own report, documents citing the positive drug tests for both the mother and her baby, and a concession from the father that the family was in "need of services." However, the trial court, and later the appeals court, ruled in favor of the agency.

In finding for A.L, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that without evidence of actual harm to the infant from the prenatal exposure to cocaine, the NJDYFS needed additional evidence to support a finding of abuse and neglect- the mere use of an illegal drug was not sufficient grounds for charge of child abuse. The court also ruled that the state's abuse and neglect statute applied to children, not fetuses.

The questions surrounding prenatal drug use are complex. Most experts agree that the emphasis should be on rehabilitation, not punishment. Women should be encouraged to seek help, not be deterred from doing so.

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