Repercussions of Positive Drug Tests in Newborns

Repercussions of Positive Drug Tests in NewbornsWhen a newborn tests positive for illicit drugs, federal guidelines require a plan to keep the infant safe and provide needed services.

Laws Governing Substance-Exposed Newborns

Public health workers became widely concerned with the number of infants exposed to illicit drugs in the midst of the crack epidemic in the 1980s, according to a 2004 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2003, the federal government passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which offers funding and guidelines to help substance-exposed infants.

The act states that it is not considered child abuse when an infant is born exposed to illicit drugs although some substance-exposed infants may be removed from the mother for other incidents of abuse. With the passage of CAPTA all states were required to provide the following, according to the Children’s Bureau:

  • A plan of safe care for infants
  • Procedures for immediate screening, risk and safety assessment
  • Prompt investigation of reports relating to substance-exposed newborns

Before this act, states had widely varied policies regarding how to handle infants exposed to drugs and alcohol. Some states considered it child abuse when an infant was exposed to drugs and reported the mother to Child Protective Services. Other states considered addiction a disease and worked to coordinate care for the infant and offer addiction treatment to the mother.

Coordinating Addiction Treatment Services for Infants and Mothers

An estimated 10 to 11 percent of all infants are affected by alcohol or illicit drug exposure every year, according to the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare (NCSACW). The center recognizes the need for a highly collaborative approach to meet the needs of women and children affected by alcohol and drug use. While federal and state laws mandate certain actions, there is no one agency that can offer all the needed services.

When states do a good job coordinating substance abuse treatment and child welfare services, mothers are able to stay in treatment longer and be reunited with their children, according to a 2011 journal article in Children and Youth Services Review. The article notes that services for women and children have improved since the late 1990s and integrated services provide the best outcomes for this population.

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