Last week, the North Carolina legislature sent a bill to Gov. Roy Cooper (D) that would make it easier and faster to put babies born exposed to drugs and alcohol on a path to adoption, cutting off efforts to return them to their parents. This week, Cooper vetoed it, citing concerns about its impact on health care and racial disparities.
Under the bill, the state could forgo “reasonable efforts” to reunite mother and child if it is determined she exposed the baby in utero to controlled substances. The state apparently would not need to show evidence that the exposure compromised the child’s health, critics of the bill point out, calling the policy change discriminatory against people who use drugs and potentially detrimental to the child’s well-being.
Efforts toward reunification would be required if a parent is enrolled and meeting expectations on treatment. There is, however, no state funding for rehab services included in the bill.
The bill also speeds up the timeline on initial permanency planning hearings, typically the first point in a case where the court weighs the option of terminating a parent’s rights. This hearing must be held within nine months, down from 12 months in the current law.
Not coincidentally, the bill also declares foster parents to be considered “nonrelative kin” to a child after nine months, meaning the foster parents would be a strong candidate for adoptive placement if a judge terminates parental rights at that hearing.
Critics suggested the bill is more about fear-mongering and punishment of drug users than the stated purpose of protecting the child. They point to studies that show that separating infants from their parents causes potentially catastrophic trauma to a child’s brain, and contend the bill would deter pregnant drug users from seeking prenatal care or drug treatment for fear of punishment.
The North Carolina Urban Survivor’s Union, a harm reduction organization dedicated to protecting the rights of drug users in North Carolina, said earlier this year it would lobby Cooper to veto the bill if it passed.
Cooper, in his veto, said the bill “discourages pregnant women with substance use disorders to seek treatment and prenatal care,” and “does nothing to expand access to treatment.”
Those consequences of the legislation, he said, “would disproportionately impact women of color and low-income women, who are already less likely to have access to the substance use treatment and quality healthcare.”
Several other states have passed laws in recent years focused on permanency plans for newborns exposed to drugs. In 2018, Kentucky passed a child welfare bill focused on family preservation, but that also included a caveat to terminate parental rights in cases with drug-exposed newborns unless a parent was willing to enroll in treatment.
That same year, Arizona’s legislature passed a law that would put a one-year clock on reunification for parents struggling with drug addiction.
NOTE: This article was updated on Friday, July 3.