Smith Bill Would Formalize Safe Care Plan for Substance-Exposed Infants

Dover – As the addiction epidemic ravages Delaware families and the number of babies born with prenatal substance exposure reaches record figures, lawmakers have introduced legislation to formalize a plan of safe care to ensure that those newborns are healthy and secure when they leave the hospital.

The latest data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that in 2015, one in 10 Americans over age 12 used illicit drugs in the past 30 days. That’s about 27.1 million people. In addition, officials estimate that more than 500,000 infants exposed to substances during pregnancy are born each year.

When expectant mothers heavily use alcohol or drugs, the substances filter through the placenta and can impact developing babies. As a result, an infant may be born substance-exposed and suffer withdrawal symptoms or develop fetal alcohol syndrome disorders.

In Delaware, the number of substance-exposed newborns has nearly tripled in four years: from 145 in 2012 to more than 400 in 2016. So far this year, the Division of Family Services has been notified of 109 babies born with prenatal substance exposure.

Babies exposed to alcohol and drugs, and their families, are vulnerable and need wrap-around services to help them thrive. House Bill 140, sponsored by Rep. Melanie George Smith, is a tangible step forward to helping those children.

The bill aligns Delaware law with the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which requires states to have policies in place that address the needs of infants born with prenatal substance exposure. This measure in particular formalizes a uniform, collaborative response protocol for the development of a plan of safe care for infants and their affected family or caregivers. The family unit is preserved whenever the infant’s safety is not in jeopardy.

“We have to make sure that there is clear, consistent follow-up care for infants with prenatal substance exposure. The rising number of infants born with such exposure is heart-wrenching. Families in the throes of addiction are vulnerable and need help,” said Rep. Smith. “Ensuring that new baby’s safety, security and health needs to be a priority for all who come in contact with the infant in those first vulnerable days. We need to make sure we are supporting families and directing them to appropriate, coordinated resources, while preserving the wellbeing of the child.”

Advocates say it is imperative that a plan of safe care is established for the infants following their release from the hospital. These plans help the baby and affected family member or caregiver by addressing their health and substance use treatment needs. Under the bill, the mother or caregiver would help develop a safe care proposal and each plan would be individually tailored to the baby and family.

“This legislation is not punitive, but rather protective and focused on public health and child welfare. It not only safeguards children exposed to substances, but their caregivers, too,” said Jennifer Donahue, Delaware’s Child Abuse Investigation Coordinator. “We shouldn’t punish families; we need to help them move into recovery so they can heal and flourish.”

HB 140 is known as “Aiden’s Law,” in memory of a substance-exposed child who tragically died months after being discharged from the hospital. The bill has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee.