'Doing all the wrong things': Health experts call for an end to Wisconsin’s failed 'cocaine moms' law
In 1997, the Wisconsin State Legislature passed Act 292, a.k.a. the Unborn Child Protection Act, which calls for penalties for women who use drugs during a pregnancy. The law, its supporters said 25 years ago, was a response to “cocaine moms.”
But just as many criminal justice reform activists have been calling for an end to the War on Drugs, some Wisconsin doctors and substance use experts are saying that it’s time to reconsider Act 292. One of them is Dr. Kathy Hartke, a retired OB-GYN.
Wisconsin Watch’s Phoebe Petrovic, reporting on December 1, explains, “The law passed in 1997 amid a national ‘crack baby’ hysteria, which in later decades, was scientifically debunked. Longitudinal studies found that children exposed to cocaine in-utero did not vary cognitively or developmentally from children who were not exposed…. Wisconsin Watch spoke with two obstetricians with experience treating pregnant people with substance use disorder, along with leaders of one treatment facility, to explore what the state’s approach to this population could look like in the absence of Act 292.”
Valerie Vidal is one of 292’s outspoken opponents. Vidal is the CEO of Meta House, a facility and nonprofit in Milwaukee that helps women with substance use problems.
Vidal told Wisconsin Watch, “The laws themselves are criminalizing women who are sick, and ultimately damaging them more by potentially having them be traumatized by a civil detention, instead of getting them access to the care and treatment they may need.”
Hartke argues that substance use is “a medical disease that needs to be treated just like diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma.”
The former OB-GYN told Wisconsin Watch, “We have to (help people recover) humanely — nonjudgmentally and with empathy — and we have to do it scientifically and not punitively…. We’re doing all the wrong things.”
Hartke, according to Petrovic, “says she tries to get patients into therapy, assuring them she won’t turn them in. But she advises that if they or their infant test positive for substances around delivery, CPS could take their newborn — showing how avoiding treatment during pregnancy to evade the child welfare system can backfire.”
Dr. Charles Schauberger, known for his expertise on both obstetrics and addiction, also favors a treatment- over-punishment approach.
Schauberger told Wisconsin Watch, “We need to help them learn the skills that they need to be effective parents and productive members of society. Social resources are vitally important and often lacking.”
In 1997, Act 292 was introduced in the Wisconsin State Legislature by State Rep. Bonnie Ladwig, a Republican. Petrovic notes that opponents of the bill, at the time, criticized it for failing to fund treatment programs. Ladwig was dismissive of their concerns, claiming that 292 only targeted pregnant women who refused treatment and didn’t go after those who were seeking treatment. But Vidal believes that 292 has failed from a treatment standpoint.
Vidal told Wisconsin Watch, “It’s fine for decision-makers to say, ‘Well, a pregnant woman using substances should get treatment.’ OK, but then, how are you supporting that woman to navigate the various systems to get her into treatment, so that she’s not losing rights?”
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