ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Here's a question. If a pregnant woman does drugs and her baby is born dependent, should the mother be prosecuted for harming the child? In Tennessee and Alabama, the answer is yes. Tennessee's fetal assault law has been on the books for a year and half. It's controversial, and other states are considering similar laws. I went to Tennessee to meet some of the people at the center of this debate, and I teamed up with Blake Farmer from member station to WPLN in Nashville.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Hello Ari.
SHAPIRO: When you and I were in Tennessee together, we found one thing that everybody agreed on - the prosecutors, the social workers. The mothers recovering from drug addiction, they all said there's just not enough help for the women who need it.
FARMER: Yep. Let's go to a group. It's called Mothers and Infants Sober Together.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I've been on meth and opium addiction for quite some time, and I lost three of my children due to my addiction.
FARMER: This is in rural east Tennessee. It's a sort of group therapy for mothers struggling with addiction. Some were sent here by the court. Others came voluntarily. At the start of this session, each woman answers the question what are your challenges this week?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The challenge is we need a car, bad.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Still no vehicle, and Josh's car is broke down too.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Our van broke down last Monday. That's why I didn't get to come here.
FARMER: Supporters of this fetal assault law say the threat of jail will drive pregnant drug-addicted women to get help. The problem is finding someone who will literally physically drive these women to get help. Some social workers try to solve the problem by traveling for miles through the countryside just to visit a client at home.
ROBIN LEDFORD: So do you want a parenting lesson?
SABRINA SAWYER: Sure.
LEDFORD: OK. Do you have your notebook?
SAWYER: I do. It's over here.
FARMER: Robin Ledford is paying house call. She works with a group called Families Free.
LEDFORD: So a lot of our clients are just getting out of incarceration. They have revoked driver's license, they have DUI charges. So it's going to be, you know, a substantial amount of money just to get their license back.
SHAPIRO: And even for women who do have a car, everybody agrees there are just not enough treatment centers in the state of Tennessee. When 23-year-old Jessica Roberts got pregnant, she decided to quit drugs cold turkey with a doctor's help. She tried to check into the only rehab clinic in this part of Tennessee that will detox pregnant women. It's called Centerpointe.
JESSICA ROBERTS: The wait list for Centerpointe was, like, three, four weeks - and that's for a pregnant woman. You know, a pregnant woman should be able to get in instantly.
SHAPIRO: We called Centerpointe, and they told us this is a typical wait. They just don't have enough beds to meet the need. Doctors disagree over whether detoxing quickly is really best for a pregnant woman and her baby. Some advise a more gradual step down through medication instead, but those programs are scarce too.
FARMER: And here's the thing. The law's supporters know there is not enough treatment for pregnant women who need it. Barry Staubus is the district attorney who's prosecuted more people under this law than anybody else. I asked him whether it's cruel to have a law where women could be prosecuted and there really is no treatment available.
BARRY STAUBUS: Can I eliminate every unfair scenario that somebody draws up? No. But I have to look at what we're doing overall for the majority of the women and, particularly, the majority of the children.
FARMER: Do you also intend to lead the charge on more funding for rehab and detox programs?
STAUBUS: Yes, of course. I'm for funding of programs and making those programs available, of course. There's always the call for more funding, but we can't let that get in the way of a good idea or a good program or an effective program.
SHAPIRO: About 5 percent of Tennesseans abuse prescription drugs according to state records. Connie Gardner works for the state's Department of Children's Services, the agency that takes babies from addicted mothers and puts them into foster care.
CONNIE GARDNER: We here are drowning in this drug problem.
SHAPIRO: She told me, none of these mothers wakes up and says, I'm going to abuse my child today.
GARDNER: What I have to keep mind is that they do - they can get better. What's frustrating, what's disappointing is that we don't have the tools to help them to get better.
SHAPIRO: New mother Jessica Roberts finally did get better. After a couple unsuccessful attempts at rehab, she detoxed on her own, sitting on her father's couch when she was 37 weeks pregnant.
J. ROBERTS: (Laughter). You're so pretty, yeah.
SHAPIRO: Now she's clean, and she has custody of her 4-month-old baby.
J. ROBERTS: Her name's Adeline Brooke.
SHAPIRO: They live together with Jessica's father. Jessica herself grew up in foster care. Both her parents were addicts. Her mother still has not recovered, but her father, Alan, is sober now and helped her break the habit. Now he thinks back to Jessica's childhood.
ALAN ROBERTS: I had a hard time with the guilt of not being there 'cause I can remember, like - Daddy, Daddy, please get me - when she was, you know, a teenager, maybe 14 or something and going into foster care - all you have to do is just pass a drug test, and you can have me and get our own place and all that.
SHAPIRO: So many addicts that we met come from families where everyone uses drugs. It's a problem that gets passed from generation to generation.
J. ROBERTS: Most people don't have a dad that is there for them, or any parent, anybody really. I'm very grateful that my dad never let me get to that point.
SHAPIRO: Now father and grown daughter are both determined to make sure the newest generation of their family doesn't go through the same struggles. Tomorrow we'll visit a pain clinic to find out why it's so easy for anyone to get access to these powerful drugs.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Do you take insurance here?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Why not?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Because most of them do not have insurance so I use the medication as fishing bait.
SHAPIRO: That story tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.