Bangor police say they arrested a woman for breastfeeding her baby while using methamphetamine in part to get her the substance use disorder treatment she needs. Treatment advocates, however, are criticizing the decision to criminally charge a woman who should instead be getting help.

Many details of the case have yet to emerge, but the woman’s 7-month-old child was treated at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor on Dec. 16. Bangor police were called to the hospital after the baby was found unconscious after ingesting the drug.

The baby regained consciousness, and the mother, Alyssa Murch, 20, of Bangor, was charged with a felony, aggravated furnishing of a scheduled drug, and a misdemeanor charge of endangering the welfare of a child. Police will not release any further information about the incident, and the case is now in the hands of the Penobscot County District Attorney’s Office.

Murch, who faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison on the felony charge, could not be reached for comment.

“(This is) sad all around, but she is young and can turn her life around,” said Sgt. Wade Betters of the Bangor police. He said the breastfeeding case appears to be the first of its kind in Bangor.

“As usual, there is more to the story, but we can’t share any further details, nor can we address all criticisms and concerns,” Betters said. “In my career, I have dealt with or met people who, in the end, appreciated police and court intervention as it was the only thing that made the difference and sent them, or a loved one on the path to recovery.

“I’m hopeful this will happen for the mother in this case. Keep in mind, some people won’t submit or commit to the available help or resources without having the court involved. Drug court and treatment programs inside our prisons are prime examples.”

Malory Shaughnessy – executive director of the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, Maine – said if a woman is sick with substance use disorder, breastfeeding a baby should not be considered a crime, even though doing so is harmful to the child. She said there’s no intent to harm, as compared to, for instance, mixing illegal drugs into baby food.

“We should be asking how do we provide more help to the mother, and arresting her is not providing that help,” Shaughnessy said. “It could impact her ability to get a job, and be harmful in the long run.”

Research on infant exposure to methamphetamine from breastfeeding is in its early stages, and there are no conclusions yet on the impacts, according to a scholarly article published in December by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Studies on pregnant women who use methamphetamines show a link between using the drug and low birth weight, and a risk of neurodevelopmental problems.

JAIL FOR MOM ‘IS NOT GOING TO HELP’

In Maine, about 1,000 babies per year are born drug-affected, often related to the opioid crisis, and arresting the mother for use during pregnancy is unheard of.

But Shaughnessy said if mothers with substance use disorder face the prospect of arrest, that could discourage them from taking their children to a hospital for an emergency or other treatment.

Dr. Mary Dowd, who treats patients with substance use disorder at Milestone Recovery and Catholic Charities in Portland, said that most mothers want to do the best for their children, and that charging them with a felony for breastfeeding, even when they are using, is “not going to accomplish anything.”

“The mother needs help, and putting her in jail is not going to help,” Dowd said.

She said formula can be expensive – especially for people who have substance use disorder and have often lost jobs and spent their money purchasing drugs – so potentially being charged with a crime for nursing a baby is counterproductive.

BILL WOULD CREATE NEW CRIME

Maine is experiencing an opioid crisis, with a record 418 drug overdose deaths in 2017 and 180 through the first six months of 2018. Methamphetamines are not opioids, but another type of illegal drug that is commonly abused. In the first six months of 2018, 10 people died of methamphetamine overdoses in Maine.

Marianne Lynch, the Penobscot County district attorney, said prosecutors are reviewing the Bangor arrest, and declined to comment on the case.

Rep. Dan Costain, R-Plymouth, has submitted a bill that would create a new crime of “endangering the welfare of a child by transmitting illegal drugs through breast milk.” Costain said he submitted the bill, which is still in the draft stages, at Lynch’s request. He said the measure is not in direct response to the methamphetamine case involving Murch.

Lynch said the title of the bill is overly narrow, and the intent would be to update language in the criminal code and make it a criminal offense to leave drugs in a place in the home where children can accidentally ingest them. She said the bill would not only be about breast milk.

Costain said that in some cases, a mother needs to be held responsible for her actions, and she can also receive help through the criminal justice system.


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