Congress should approve this bill protecting babies born addicted to opiates

May 9, 2016
Opinion Editorial
PennLive.com, May 5, 2016

This coming September, Brayden Cummings would be celebrating his second birthday in Lehighton, Pennsylvania.  Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to see that young age, because he died of asphyxiation when he was only six weeks old.  Police say his mother, who was addicted to heroin and high on other drugs at the time, fell asleep on top of the boy and smothered him to death.  If there had been better policies in place to protect babies born addicted to opiates – and better support for their caregivers – Brayden Cummings might still be alive today.

Countless stories like this led me to introduce the Infant Plan of Safe Care Improvement Act with my colleague, Rep. Kathleen Clark, a Democrat from Massachusetts – because protecting children should always be a bipartisan issue.  Our bill requires that states which receive federal funds for the treatment of opioid-dependent babies comply with federal law and enact certain guidelines for child welfare.  Under the bill, we include as opioids drugs such as heroin and certain pain medications that are taken illegally without proper prescriptions.  And make no mistake; this legislation does not seek to persecute the mothers of the children, so parents are not dissuaded from allowing their newborns to access appropriate care.

Substance abuse is a problem that afflicts millions of Americans, and while its damaging effects are felt across our society, the most tragic cases are those involving newborns.  Children who are exposed to illegal substances before they’re born are helpless in avoiding the pain and suffering caused by addiction, and so many infants enter this world without even a fighting chance.  In fact, every 25 minutes in this country, a baby is born already exposed to drugs and suffering from opiate withdrawal.  These children will pay the price for something they had absolutely no control over – something they were defenseless against.

Federal policies have long supported state efforts to identify, assess, and treat children who are victims of abuse and neglect. One of those policies, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), was enacted in 1974 to provide states with resources to improve their child protective services systems.  Programs include requiring health care providers to notify state child protective services agencies when a child is born with pre-natal illegal substance exposure, as well as requiring the development of a “safe care plan” to protect these newborns and keep them and their caregivers healthy.  In order to receive the federal funding, states are required to assure the Department of Health and Human Services that they are in compliance with CAPTA.  

Unfortunately, even with this process in place, it’s become clear that the system is failing some of our most helpless children and their families.  Some states are not following federal law, yet are receiving the dollars meant to support these very important child welfare policies.  The result is that taxpayer funds are being wasted, and worse, children and families who need help are not getting it.

Our bill demands that federal agencies do better when it comes to enforcing policies meant to protect children from abuse and neglect.  It requires review and confirmation that states have put in place policies required by CAPTA.  The bill also strengthens protections for infants born addicted to opiates and it improves accountability related to the care of those infants and their families.  It also includes provisions to provide states with best practices for developing plans to keep infants and their caregivers healthy and safe and to encourage the use of information made available through other child welfare laws in verifying CAPTA compliance.

Early in May the House of Representatives will consider and, hopefully, pass this important legislation, and I call on the U.S. Senate to approve it as well.  It’s important to remember that not only did Brayden Cummings need help when he was born, but so did his mother.  And in a nation as great as ours, we must do all that we can to provide protection to the most vulnerable among us.  

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