U.S. lawmakers call for action to protect drug-exposed newborns

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two senior U.S. senators are calling for swift federal action to help protect thousands of infants born each year to mothers who used opioids during pregnancy.

Senator Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, the top Democrat on the children and families subcommittee, is calling for oversight hearings, in part to understand why a longstanding federal law directing states to safeguard the newborns is not being enforced.

Another Democrat, Senator Charles Schumer of New York, wants the Obama Administration to put “an emergency surge” of funds from the new federal budget toward addressing the growing number of drug-dependent newborns.

The calls come after a Reuters investigation earlier this month identified 110 examples of babies and toddlers whose mothers used opioid drugs during their pregnancies and who died under preventable circumstances after being sent home from hospitals to families ill-equipped to keep them safe. Six women who accidentally killed their babies while on drugs said in interviews that they wished they had received more help from hospitals or social workers. All but one of the mothers were sentenced to prison time in the deaths.

Casey said he was “deeply disturbed” by the findings. “This is unacceptable when children’s lives are at stake,” Casey wrote in a letter to Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a Republican who chairs the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Alexander’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Despite a 12-year-old federal law that calls on states to protect drug-dependent newborns, Reuters found that thousands of babies born to mothers who use opioids during pregnancy are being sent home without social-service evaluations and safe-care plans – requirements under the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act.

Since 2003, when the law was passed, the number of newborns diagnosed with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome has skyrocketed – from 4,991 cases in 2003 to 27,315 in 2013, according to a Reuters analysis of hospital discharge data kept by the federal government.

“It’s become a sad fact that the latest victims of the prescription drug crisis in this country are the most vulnerable in our society, innocent babies,” Schumer said in a news release. The senator called for the administration to direct a portion of the $47 million allocated in the recent budget for a substance-abuse agency toward helping opioid-exposed babies. Schumer did not ask for a specific amount of money.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services said the senator’s request is being considered.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also called for action. McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said the Reuters series “brings to the forefront a problem” that he has urged the Obama Administration to address faster.

In the House of Representatives, Representative Evan Jenkins, a Republican from West Virginia, has introduced legislation that would make it easier for cities to create and operate facilities designed to care for opioid-affected babies and mothers in the critical first month after birth. Jenkins helped found one such facility in his hometown of Huntington, West Virginia.

Jenkins said the news agency’s investigation “showed the devastating effects prenatal drug exposure has on our nation’s babies and the magnitude of the crisis across the country and in my home state of West Virginia.”

Some advocacy groups are pushing for congressional steps to address the issue, while others are recommending caution.

The Pennsylvania-based child welfare organization Center for Children’s Justice asked for “immediate, not delayed action” in a letter signed by 24 other organizations representing children’s advocates, pediatricians, nurses, social workers and churches. The letter was sent earlier this month to Casey and other Pennsylvania lawmakers in Washington.

The California-based Children and Family Futures called in a letter to congressional staffers for oversight hearings and an investigation into whether state and county child welfare agencies are writing plans for safe care as the law requires.

Two other groups raised concerns about what would happen to mothers and families if child protection workers became more involved in cases like those profiled by Reuters.

The National Advocates for Pregnant Women called the Reuters investigation “the latest in a long line of journalistic reports that perpetrate stigma” against women. “These ‘bad mothers’ are frequent scapegoats in a nation that is itself addicted to punishment,” the group said in a statement.

Another group, the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, argued that more intervention by child protection authorities would be counterproductive. “Whenever we try to take a swing at ‘bad mothers,’ the blow lands on the children,” wrote the group’s executive director, Richard Wexler, in an opinion piece published by Reuters.

The Reuters investigation, “Helpless & Hooked,” can be found at

Edited by Blake Morrison