Rocked by a series of preventable infant deaths, the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth has adopted new recommendations for doctors and child welfare workers to follow in dealing with newborns exposed to drugs or alcohol in the womb.
“It's a big problem,” said Dr. John Stuemky, a member of the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth and chief child abuse examiner for the state.
OU Medical Center sees three or four drug-positive babies and/or mothers a week, Stuemky said, adding that it is difficult to estimate how big the overall problem is because of underreporting.
Public attention was called to the situation by a series of high-profile deaths, including Maggie May Trammel, a 10-day-old infant who died in 2010 after being placed in a washing machine at her mother's Bartlesville home. State Department of Human Services officials were notified at Maggie's birth that her mother had been using drugs while pregnant. The agency had received a half dozen previous child welfare complaints.
The commission released a summary report Friday that noted the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile System Oversight reviewed 10 cases involving babies where there was evidence of drug use by the mother at birth.
“Eight of the 10 babies died of subsequent neglect or abuse on average within 6.5 months of their birth,” the report states.
Wanda Felty, chairwoman of the subcommittee that issued the report, said when subcommittee members delved into the situation they discovered a number of problems, including a lack of availability of both outpatient and residential services for substance abuse treatment.
“For example, there are 216 total treatment beds available designed for women with dependent children and the waiting list is extensive,” the report states.
Expectant mothers with drug addiction problems are placed at the top of the treatment list, but more beds are needed, Felty said.
The commission is recommending that an extra $4 million be appropriated to the state Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Department to expand treatment programs.
“When major addiction problems are identified with the mother, we've got to be able to offer some sort of treatment services,” Stuemky said.
Early on in the subcommittee's yearlong inquiry, officials discovered DHS child abuse hotline workers were not collecting and recording data concerning babies who tested positive for drugs at birth, Felty said. That was quickly changed, she said.
Stuemky said as recently as a year ago, DHS child welfare workers did not always conduct investigations when his hospital reported newborns had tested positive for drugs. That policy has changed and investigations are now conducted in each case, he said.
The commission's inquiry also revealed that every hospital and every physician who has delivered a baby seemed to have different criteria for deciding when to make a referral to the state child welfare system, Felty said.
Stuemky told the commission that he relied on previous work done in Arizona and the state of Washington to develop a protocol for doctors and hospitals to follow in determining when and how to test, detect and report drug and alcohol abuse by mothers of newborns.
The protocol will be distributed to hospitals with childbirth facilities, as well as to doctors who care for expectant mothers and newborns, officials said.
The goal is not to seek punishment for mothers who have abused drugs or alcohol while pregnant, but to make referrals so that services can be provided to monitor and protect the safety of the babies, Stuemky said.
In extreme cases, child welfare workers may have to go to court to seek custody of a child, but those cases would be in the minority, he said.