A bill that punishes women for using drugs while pregnant advances despite opposition | Crime-and-courts

A bill that would punish pregnant women for using drugs passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday after multiple parties testified in opposition to it.

House Bill 85, sponsored by Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, would require women who are caught using some illegal drugs — excluding marijuana — to go to substance abuse treatment on their first offense. On the second offense, a woman found guilty of child endangerment could be punished by no more than five years in prison, a fine of not more than $5,000 or both.

“This is a way we can hold women accountable,” Oakley said.

Wyoming is one of eight states without a law on the books to address the issue of pregnant women using drugs, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, but the advocacy group and others don’t see Oakley’s bill as the right vehicle to address the issue.

Opponents of the bill have argued throughout the budget session that enacting the law would make women less likely to seek treatment for their addiction.

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“We are strongly against this,” said Elizabeth Dole-Izzo, executive director for the Wyoming chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. “Treatment works, punishment does not.”

Erin McKinney, clinical director for women and children services at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, told lawmakers criminal penalties for pregnant women can have negative effects. McKinney said she was speaking only to provide information and not to take a position on the bill.

“All of the evidence has shown that when women are criminalized this does not change or help them,” she said. “It actually decreases their likelihood of receiving prenatal care.”

Oakley said she brought the in part because she believes there’s “a hole in the law” when it comes to the issue.

A person testifying on behalf of the Northern Arapaho Business Council said that women on the Wind River Reservation already struggle to get to prenatal and postnatal appointments, and that this bill could exacerbate these issues.

Additionally, representatives from the Wyoming Counseling Association, the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers and the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault all testified in opposition to the bill.

Typically, after the last member of the public is done giving public testimony, the sponsor of the bill is welcomed back up to speak. As Chairwoman Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, invited Oakley up, she said, “Good luck,” with a giggle, seemingly acknowledging the amount of opposition to Oakley’s proposed legislation.

Oakley said she agrees that treatment should be the first step.

“Very infrequently is somebody going to go to prison for this,” she said.

House Bill 85 must now pass three readings in the Senate and be signed by the governor to become law.

If the bill does not clear those hurdles, Nethercott — who voted against the measure — was open to seeing the matter become an interim topic for the Joint Judiciary Committee to discuss. Oakley did not seem as keen on that proposal.

“I don’t think further discussion will change anybody’s mind,” she said.

The bill currently does not have a mandatory reporting requirement, which Oakley says she agrees with.

Last year, the Department of Family Services received 115 reports of children born while suffering from drug withdrawal, said Korin Schmidt, director of the department. Thirty-seven of those were taken into protective custody. Schmidt seemed to indicate there was little more data on the topic.

Follow state politics reporter Victoria Eavis on Twitter @Victoria_Eavis