HARRISBURG — The state will begin requiring hospitals to alert child protection authorities when babies are born with drugs in their systems.
Supporters of the move say the intent is to make sure moms and their babies get help rather than punish the mothers for drug use.
The change comes from a provision tacked into one of the raft of laws passed before lawmakers left the Capitol for the summer. The measure is part of Act 54, signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf last week. That same day, Wolf extended his opioid emergency declaration for another 90 days.
The new law will directly impact how newborns are treated, by requiring that child protection services develop a plan of care for the infant, said Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children's Justice in Berks County.
That plan is supposed to assure that the child is in a safe setting when he or she is released from the hospital and that the mother and other adults with addiction issues in the home are provided treatment, according to a legislative summary of Act 54.
State Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks County, spoke in favor of the legislation before it passed the state Senate. She noted that it will provide help to mothers and their children.
“Babies are not born addicted, they do not choose to have drugs in their blood system. That invites stigma for the infant and more importantly for the mother of the infant as well,” Schwank said. “Stigma is one of the biggest challenges faced in fighting the opioid crisis and stigma is so magnified for a woman who is pregnant and also then battling a substance use disorder.”
The move brings Pennsylvania fully into compliance with the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, passed in 2003.
Former U.S. Rep. James Greenwood, R-PA, authored the federal law and he’d urged state lawmakers to make the change included in Act 54.
He called the legislation “critically important” in a letter to lawmakers. “Pennsylvania must confront one of the most challenging and consequential effects of the opioid crisis — responding to a growing number of Pennsylvania infants born dependent on opiates,” he wrote.
As part of his opioid emergency response, Wolf signed an executive order directing hospitals to let the state know when babies are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, that is, suffering from withdrawal symptoms.
State data show that hospitals have reported that 928 babies were born with neonatal abstinence syndrome in Pennsylvania in the six months since Wolf declared the opioid emergency in January.
The provisions in Act 54 are significant because Wolf’s executive order primarily served as a data tool to inform policymakers about where the state might need to direct resources, Palm said. The new legislation “clarifies" how authorities should respond while focusing on providing help to the babies’ families rather than automatically treating the moms’ drug use as criminal acts, Palm said.