/Delivering Justice Why a Mississippi county is prosecuting some pregnant women and new moms

Delivering Justice Why a Mississippi county is prosecuting some pregnant women and new moms

Christina was told by the judge that she is lucky that this case won’t go to trial. Christina cried minutes after she pleaded guilty for felony child abuse. This avoided a jury trial. The judge stated, “Because I would seriously consider sending you to prison for your entire life if the jury returned in this case with an guilty verdict.” I don’t think any mama could do this to her child. It’s impossible. Christina replied, “What in the world could I have been thinking?” He sentenced Christina to 10 years imprisonment for poisoning her baby boy. Five years would be suspended. Christina would need to serve five of the remaining five at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, Pearl. Five years is a light sentence for poisoning a baby. But the circumstances surrounding Christina’s arrest are more complex. The Jones County cases of Christina and other Jones County women have attracted national and local maternal rights advocates’ attention. They claim that this county in southeast Mississippi, known for its freedom-spiritedness, is violating pregnant women’s rights and deterring them getting the care they need. Christina avoided crack cocaine since the moment she found out she was pregnant in 2016. She had been struggling with it since she was 23. Christina smoked crack with her friends at a New Years Eve party, despite months of sobriety. The next day, she went into labor. She gave birth to a boy on Jan. 2, 2017, one of the first Jones County babies in 2017. She vividly recalls the next steps. Two Child Protection Services officers arrived at the Laurel hospital, where she had just given birth, and took her baby boy from her. The state would later take her 1-year-old son as they investigated her case. Christina was arrested by Jones County sheriff’s officers two weeks later and charged with felony child abuse. Christina thought she would be punished for using drugs during pregnancy. She had never touched her children. It was a mystery to her why authorities believed that her healthy baby boy had been abused. Christina, now 37 years old, said that everyone makes mistakes. She spoke to Mississippi Today by phone from Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. Christina struggled to explain how she got here, despite correspondence with reporters via phone calls and letters. “I have to admit that I am an addict and a recovering addict, but the system did not help me… They threw my body away.” She wrote that the Jones County judge made an example of me. However, Christina might have lived in a different county. Jones County is well-known for its independence. According to some, the county split from the Confederacy during Civil War. This is illustrated in Matthew McConaughey’s film “The Free State of Jones.” It is located in southern Mississippi’s piney woods and now houses some of the most interesting public officials of the state, such as Republican state Senator Chris McDaniel or Democratic Rep. Omeria Scott. Jones County is performing better economically than other parts of the state. Laurel, the county’s largest, has seen a rise in development over recent years. While the county’s unemployment rate is five percent, it is similar to the state’s average. The median income in the county is $3,000 lower than the state’s. Nevertheless, the county has a higher than average unemployment rate of five percent. The median income is about $3,000 less than the state’s. Local law enforcement officials claim drug use is widespread, with methamphetamine and marijuana being the most common illegal drugs in the county. This data tracks with the statewide data collected by the Bureau of Narcotics. Kristen Martin, an assistant district attorney who was recently hired, joined forces with Tonya Madison, a Captain with the Jones County Sheriff’s Department to address a troubling trend. They were concerned about the rising number of referrals to her office from child-protection agencies for mothers and newborns for drug abuse. Madison recalls asking Martin, “Okay. What can we do?” “What statute can be used to prosecute moms to do the right thing for the children?” Madison recalled asking Martin. Mississippi is not like neighboring Tennessee which has criminalized drug use during pregnancy in 2014. Martin, who is responsible for all Jones County’s drug cases looked at Mississippi’s felony children abuse law. This defines poisoning as child abusing, regardless of whether the child suffers bodily harm. Martin explains that illegal drugs used by pregnant women can end up in the baby’s body, poisoning them. Martin stated that this is how the felonious child abuse statute was created. Martin estimates that she has tried to prosecute about 20 women since 2015 under this new interpretation of the law. None of them have been convicted. Mississippi Today found 18 cases in Jones County using news reports and public records. Some cases made national headlines like Bailey Kitchens’ case, where a teenage boy died two weeks after his birth. Kitchens was initially charged with pregnancy while she was pregnant. A judge ordered Kitchens to stay in jail until her child was born. Martin also prosecuted a father who pleaded guilty for child abuse, giving methamphetamines to his daughter. The baby was born preterm with the drug in Martin’s system. Both parents were sentenced for five years. Law enforcement can be involved in some states, like Tennessee, that make drug use during pregnancy illegal. This is when doctors diagnose neonatal abstinence syndrome or when the baby is dependent on drugs. Jones County, however, has taken some women into custody before they gave birth. Martin stated that the case must be deemed a success. Madison, the Jones County Captain, states that officers can identify women after Child Protection Services intervenes or routine stops when officers suspect a pregnant lady is using drugs. Jones County Sheriff Alex Hodge is Madison’s boss and supports this approach. He said that he is proud to work with the district attorney’s to prosecute these cases. He said, “We don’t apologize for protecting the life of the unborn” and that he believes there is a great responsibility to do so, not only to prosecute but also to educate. Tony Buckley, Martin’s boss and District Attorney, did not respond to calls for comment. About half of the women who pleaded guilty were sentenced to drug court. This program requires participants to undergo frequent drug tests, take life skills classes, and attend Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meetings for three to five year. The initial charge against a person who successfully completes the program will be removed from their record. In the last four years, at least 11 women have pleaded guilty. Two were indicted by the Jones County grand jury this year. The charges against four other women were not filed; one of them died while they were pending. The maximum sentence for women found guilty of the charges is five years, with the possibility of life imprisonment. Martin stated that Martin’s ultimate goal was to help these women. Advocates and defense lawyers for the women facing prosecution are unsure if Martin’s approach is beneficial to children and women, or constitutional. Martin is aware of the criticisms that Martin’s unconventional approach has caused from criminal justice reformers as well as women’s advocates. Martin stated, “We know that we will be challenged at some point.” We haven’t because we must take one to trial. “We’ve received some backlash in New York and other states, Northern States, from doctors who disagree the idea that drugs can be poison. National Advocates for Pregnant Women is a New York-based non profit that tracks these prosecutions. It helps local defense lawyers understand the science behind drug use during pregnancy. These experts concluded that a fetus was not a child. The child neglect argument is now dead. Aarin Williams, an attorney representing the organization, stated that there is no clear definition of poisoning in Mississippi’s statute. A wave of attempts to define personhood have met resistance in recent years. In Mississippi, the voters voted down an amendment to personhood in 2011. Williams stated that a woman cannot make her fetus into a person without taking away her constitutional rights. Williams stated that these laws are anti woman and that if you’re anti-woman you are also anti-baby. Williams said that drug use during pregnancy does not necessarily mean that a person is poisoned. However, experts agree that the public health issue of drug use during pregnancy should be addressed. This must not be a punitive approach that discourages prenatal care. Research suggests that while all drugs have different effects on women and their fetuses, neonatal abstinence syndrome can be treated and is not permanent. Research has shown that pregnant women who are addicted to drugs can be prevented from receiving prenatal care. It also affects poor women in a way that is detrimental to patient-doctor relationships. American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists considers the criminalization of mothers’ drug addiction to be “inappropriate” and disturbing. The media and medical community have changed how they handle drug use during pregnancy in recent decades. Research has shown no correlation between crack use and fetal impairment, despite years of concern about the long-term effects on babies of mothers who have used crack cocaine. Modern research confirms the previous studies. It emphasizes that opioid use can cause complications in pregnancies, and is harmful for mothers. However, every drug use is not necessarily linked to fetal harm. Nearly all research shows that both mother and baby are at greater risk of complications if they do not receive prenatal care and opioid abuse disorder is untreated. Martin stated that she had spoken to a Jackson doctor, but she did not name him. She believes Williams would be able to prove the contrary if one of these cases goes to trial. Madison says that she was not prosecuting the women under the statute because they were “not getting prenatal treatment anyway.” Madison admits there is uncertainty about whether the children have been harmed. Madison notes that some babies have been “OK” while others have needed to be in neonatal intensive for a while. Madison stated that it was not known if the child will have any medical problems three, four, or five years later. Williams is not comfortable with this level of uncertainty. She stated that the state should be able prove beyond reasonable doubt that poisoning occurred. “If they’re admitting that they don’t know, why do they have to tear these families apart while they try to figure out what the problem is?” Williams also believes Martin’s prosecutions are a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Only pregnant women and mothers can be prosecuted. Williams stated that “You’re creating a specific segment of the population for this law to apply to, and it wasn’t intended to be applied in this way.” Advocates in Tennessee and Alabama have been protesting the so-called chemical endangerment and fetal assault laws. They are concerned about equality and long-term impacts on women. The majority of cases that criminalize drug use during pregnancy are not upheld in court. In a 2017 study published in the Journal of American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, it was found that over 86 percent of cases in 19 states have been dismissed or overturned. Grant Hedgepeth is a former prosecutor and defense attorney who represented one woman in Jones County. He believes that the district attorney’s office “pushes this, probably beyond Constitutional muster.” Hedgepeth supports legislation to address illegal drug use during pregnancy. Hedgepeth stated, “If it is perfectly legal to abort your baby, how can it be a potential lifetime sentence to harm an unborn baby?” Martin does not know of any Mississippi prosecutors who have used child abuse laws in Mississippi to punish pregnant women who use drugs. Judges and prosecutors have already thrown the books at pregnant women who experience stillbirths or other complications. Rennie Gibbs, a Lowndes County mother, was charged in 2006 with depraved heart murder following the stillbirth her daughter. A urine test revealed that Gibbs had marijuana and cocaine in her system. Steven Hayne, a medical examiner, stated that the child died from “cocaine poisoning” citing autopsy reports that showed a cocaine-like byproduct in her blood. They were ultimately dismissed. Hayne was later discredited for giving testimony that went beyond the scope of forensic science standards. He also misrepresented his credentials as a pathologist. In the past decade, multiple people who were convicted in Hayne’s cases were exonerated. Legislators have attempted to codify Martin’s method in recent years. State Sen. Dennis DeBar Jr. (R-Leakesville) filed a bill making it a crime under the child abuse statute to allow a child to test positive at birth for a controlled drug. Meanwhile, state Senator Michael Watson (R-Pascagoula) pushed for a measure that would have made it a crime to “chemically endanger a child or foetus” if the child or foetus inhaled, inhaled, or otherwise were exposed to a controlled substances. Both bills were defeated in committee. Martin believes that it is only a matter time before such a measure becomes law. Martin and Madison, the Jones County Sheriff’s Office captain, believe that they are protecting women’s children and helping them. They often text each other about cases at all hours of day. They share their frustrations, pointing out that their jobs can be stressful for their families and children. Madison, despite her tough exterior, admits that she tries to be realistic with the moms she arrests. Martin’s office is filled with file boxes, which she claims have helped her see addiction as a serious disease that requires treatment and not prison time. Martin states that she would like to have more options because the prison option isn’t the best one right now for almost anything. Martin says some mothers are too involved in the drug culture and don’t want to change. Martin doesn’t like the idea of locking up women and throwing away the keys. Our job is to enforce the law. Having said that, we don’t just want to throw everyone away and send them to prison. This is not what we are about. Obviously, that’s not how we’re going about it. Counselors are able to monitor the woman and provide care until she gives birth. Sometimes, they encourage women to attend drug court if they believe she will succeed in the program. Martin believes that drug court would have been futile in other cases. Martin cites Jones County’s case of a woman who was sentenced for having 11 children but did not have custody. Martin stated, “You send the women to drug court or another type of facility and hopefully they turn around their lives and the babies’ lives will be better.” Because we see a vicious circle. Baby’s 15 years old when mama is on drugs and baby is born on drugs.
Martin believes that Christina, who is well-respected by her office from past drug arrests and referrals received from Child Protection Services, has very little chance of breaking the cycle. Christina is determined prove the prosecutor wrong. Christina is still unsure about her case and has become agitated over not being able to find her children or assert her parental rights while in prison. In a letter she wrote to a reporter, she stated that “I am truly doing it alone” and that she was being ignored. Christina’s father is an out-of-state resident who is disabled and unemployed and can sometimes afford to add a few dollars to her commissary account to buy paper, stamps, and additional toiletries, when her one bar of travel-size state-issued soap runs out. Sometimes she uses sanitary pads for her toilet paper. Christina also had seven teeth pulled after suffering weeks of pain. Mississippi charges prisoners $6 for extractions. Prison officials take this amount from the commissary accounts. It is difficult to not be able to contact her children or CPS. Christina claims she has never received letters from her Child Protection Services caseworker and cannot afford stamps. Christina has been baptized, taken English literature classes, and completed parenting classes since she entered prison. She wrote, “I am trying to improve myself while I’m here — that’s what hurt me so much when I went to trial.” They didn’t acknowledge the good things I was doing. They’re so fixated on my past. It’s almost as if I never had a chance to prove my worth.”