/Delivering Justice What happens when moms who use drugs get help instead of jail time

Delivering Justice What happens when moms who use drugs get help instead of jail time

LAUREL — Savannah Knight Dozier was the first to count her baby’s fingers, and toes. She made sure that he had ten. He did. Savannah gave birth to her son against the wall in her laundry room, July 2017. She nursed her son till her mother arrived to transport them to the hospital. She was a bubbly blonde Jones County native who sold methamphetamine to make a living and did nails. As she held her son, she realized she had to quit using methamphetamine. Savannah, now 31 years old, said that when you lay there with a baby alone and there’s no one there except you and God — that’s what I considered my breaking point. “I knew that I was in too deep and that I had gotten far more into my addiction than I planned,” she said. Her release from Jones County jail came shortly after the birth of her son. According to her, a Jones County deputy pulled her over only feet from her driveway. Savannah lit a cigarette before consenting to her car being searched. The male deputy discovered a fake urine package in it. Savannah was charged with littering as well as possessing drug paraphernalia. The circumstances surrounding the arrest are not clear. The deputy stated that Savannah had admitted to using marijuana, but she also denied being pregnant and was not on medication. Savannah claimed that she never confessed to smoking marijuana, and was not asked about her pregnancy. Savannah was in jail for three days before her father took Savannah home and bailed out her. Savannah went into labor after returning to her home. Later, she recalls sitting on a hospital couch with her son when Capt. Tonya Madison, a child protective services worker from the sheriff’s department, arrived and ordered Savannah to her feet. Savannah claimed her son had never tested positive for drugs. However, a hair screen revealed that Savannah had methamphetamines and amphetamines in her system. A month later, the deputy who had arrested Savannah at her traffic stop returned to her home to arrest her for felony abuse. Prosecutors cited Savannah’s indictment as citing a section of Mississippi’s law on felony child abuse and poisoning. Savannah is one 18 women Mississippi Today has identified as being charged with felony child abusing by the Jones County District Attorney’s Office. This office has teamed up with the sheriff’s to identify women who are suspected of using drugs during pregnancy. Kristin Martin, Assistant District Attorney, has stated that the use of controlled substances in pregnancy amounts to poisoning a child. Savannah said she wanted to avoid a trial where jurors might not be able to understand her struggle with addiction. A guilty verdict could lead to life imprisonment. Her attorney suggested that he could get her into drug courts, which a judge can place defendants in as part of a plea bargain or condition of probation. She thought this might help her quit using meth. This spring, she pleaded guilty. Participants must take drug court over a period of three to five year. They also have to attend life skills classes, drug tests, and recovery meetings. Savannah will have her child abuse conviction removed from her record if she completes the program. Advocates for health say that Savannah should not be subject to jail time, arrests, or threats of life imprisonment in order to receive the treatment she needs. Experts say Jones County’s policy could hinder women seeking treatment and prevent them from seeking out prenatal care. Researchers estimate that about 10% of all births are affected or affected by alcohol or drug use, even though it is difficult to determine how many women used drugs during pregnancy due to underreporting. Tricia Wright, a Hawaii doctor who runs a program for women with drug addictions in Hawaii since 2007, said that prenatal care is crucial to preventing many of the health problems women experience from using drugs during pregnancy. Her program combines access to prenatal care, child care, birth control, social services, and prescribing addiction medicine. This has resulted in lower drug use and higher custody rates for the women who have participated. She said that when women interfere with doctor-patient relationships and report (addiction), it can impact their ability to get prenatal care. This results in poorer pregnancy outcomes. Wright states that many women fear coming forward to seek treatment due to stigmatization and fear of the legal consequences. However, their condition can be treated and is not considered a moral failing. Women should be screened for substance abuse during pregnancies. This will allow them to receive treatment and support. Federal guidelines state that medication-assisted therapy is the best option for moms and babies. It combines counseling with medication to reduce withdrawal symptoms and decrease the chance of relapse. American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists recommends routine screenings of pregnant women for substance abuse disorders, rather than last-minute screenings at delivery. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists encourages doctors to advocate treatment and “discourage parent and child separation solely based upon substance use disorder, either suspected nor confirmed.” Bonlitha Windham is the director of prevention services at the child protection agency. She said that health care professionals in Mississippi are required reporters. Windham explained to Mississippi Today that when they care for pregnant women who have used drugs, Windham said: “Medical providers must refer to (Child Protection Services) regardless if the situation is child abuse or neglect under the law and regardless if the situation constitutes an illicit action.” Windham also stated that it is up the child protection agency to decide whether to involve law enforcement. Wright said that reporting for the condition as a medical problem is not ethically acceptable. She stated that mandatory reporting stops doctors from prescribing medical treatment and prevents women from receiving the care they need. She says that when law enforcement is present in the delivery room, it can interfere with the ability of obstetricians and their ability to perform their duties. Madison from the sheriff’s department said that Jones County law enforcement collaborates with local child protection officers to intervene in child abuse cases. Savannah was delivered at South Central Regional Medical Center in Laurel. Social workers notify Child Protection Services when mothers test positive for drugs. Jencie Moss, a spokesperson for the hospital, explained that this is how Child Protection Services works. There is no clear pattern as to what triggers law enforcement to intervene in a case in which a woman has used controlled substances during pregnancy. Savannah claims that neither her baby nor she tested positive for drugs at the hospital. However, local news reports reported Savannah’s first arrest. This could have led to hospital staff taking action. According to the sheriff’s office, several informants also indicated that Savannah had a history with drug abuse. This means that Savannah was well-known to local law enforcement. Martin, the prosecutor, stated that the newborn must have a positive drug screening. However, a review by Jones County sheriff’s offices and news reports has shown that at least three women were charged with felony child abusing without positive results from their children. These arrests occurred before the babies were born. Madison and Martin wish they had more resources to pursue these cases as well as others that they see throughout the county. Wright, who manages the prenatal recovery program says that exposing women like Savannah to criminal justice is not good for their babies, moms, or society. They need support during pregnancy and after birth. She said that they need medication-assisted therapy. They need nurses, doctors, and a system of health care that supports their substance abuse disorder. Access to treatment is essential for them. The national average is that 20 percent of all recovery beds are dedicated to pregnant women. However, treatment methods vary from one state to the next. Wengora Thompson directs the Mississippi March of Dimes’ maternal and child health program. She says that treatment should be the first option because “placing mom behind bars and seperating her from her child… creates more harm than it does good.” Thompson also explains that law enforcement officers are not trained with a patient-first mentality. Pregnant women suffering from substance abuse disorders are a matter for public health and not public safety. Thompson stated that it seems as though public safety is in control. Although it’s nice to think so, Thompson believes otherwise. Jones County Sheriff Alex Hodge is a member of the National Sheriffs Association’s Board of Directors and oversees Madison. He said that he had shared with other sheriffs how the county investigates, prosecutes, and reports on these cases. Hodge stated, “As we network and talk about various issues across a table, Jones County is sitting there talking about their actions.” Many jails have been transformed into de facto detox centers as a result of the opioid crisis. Recently, some sheriffs and prosecutors called for the expansion of medication-assisted therapy in prisons and jails. Martin stated that Jones County law enforcement had identified pregnant women using controlled substances in some cases. Madison explained that it is sometimes possible for women to receive prenatal care only after they have been detained. The jail does not provide medication-assisted care and the women are left to detox. Allyson Knotts is a spokesperson for Jones County Sheriff’s Department. She stated that the jail does not offer an “official detoxing program.” However, a judge can order women to stay behind bars for the duration of their pregnancies. Prenatal care is provided by on-premise nurses and hospital transports. She stated that having a pregnant inmate at the jail is not an ideal situation, no matter what, for either the mother or the facility. “But if necessary, it is necessary.” Jones County’s drug courts and rehab programs do not offer medication-assisted treatment. Legislators recently passed a bill that Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill to allow medication-assisted therapy to be offered in drug courts. Madison and Martin were the Jones County prosecutors. A judge sentenced half of the defendants to prison while Martin was sent to drug court. The duo considers this a second chance for those with no criminal records. Madison exclaimed, “The word is spreading… There are cases where mothers will travel to other counties to have their babies.” “They live in Jones County, but they travel to another county and have their babies,” Madison boasted. Dr. James Lozada is an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and an obstetricanesthesiologist who studies maternal and infant deaths. Lozada acknowledges that controlled substance use during pregnancy can be a problem for society. He said that Mississippi’s high rates of maternal and infant mortality makes it even more urgent for the state to treat addiction as a medical problem and not criminalize it. This approach will not solve the problem, I feel strongly. He said that it won’t change drug use in the area and that it will make things more difficult for pregnant women and their children. This is especially true if they are concerned about the possibility of being prosecuted if they leave the region to have children. Lozada stated that “We should do things to improve the health care for patients, encourage them to seek treatment, encourage them to have good prenatal care, and encourage them trust the medical system.” “This kind of thing completely undermines trust and faith in the medical system.” Savannah now calls a drug court number every day at 3:00 p.m. to find out if she will need to undergo a drug test. The person on the other end announces the color she will be testing that day. It could be yellow, blue or green, depending on how long the participant has been in drug courts. Savannah is listening for red, the assigned color of a newcomer. She attended a Narcotics Anonymous recovery meeting every day for her first 90 days of drug court. She now attends four weekly Narcotics Anonymous drug court meetings and a local church. She also attends mandatory anger management, parenting, and marriage counseling classes. She can face a variety of penalties if she fails to attend drug testing or misses classes. This includes a warning and having to write 500 times the sentence “I’m going to miss another test” 45 days in jail. It can be hard to keep up with work, childcare, and drug court obligations. Savannah can only work when Savannah’s mother is available to care for her two children. To pay for her daughter’s private school tuition and 50 monthly drug court fees, she has two jobs: waitressing in the day and nursing home assistant in the night. As part of her court-ordered service, she wears pink rubber boots and cleans the streets. She spends her waking hours with her children, who are now a boisterous toddler. Her parents support her, as they run a well-known motorcycle ministry called Hellfighters. They also have a men’s rehabilitation center in Laurel. Savannah described her recovery as “like taking baby steps.” Savannah recalled the joy of her first sober Mother’s Day. Savannah said, “I’ve never lived my life without drugs for so many years that everything’s new.” She will be free from the felony child abuse charge if she successfully completes drug court. If she fails to complete drug court and relapses, she will be sentenced to up 10 years imprisonment, far from her family. Savannah credits the system, even the judges and prosecutors she used to view as enemies, for saving her family and helping her overcome her ordeal. She referred to her family as “When mama ain’t happy, nobody is happy.” Although it may sound cliché, this is the second story in a series that explores the connection between criminal justice, pregnancy, and drug use in Jones County. You can read the first story here. To celebrate, support this work by making a regular donation.
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