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Pregnant addicts blur crime debate

Authorities waver on punishment for neglect, abuse

In December 2006, police say, Brooke Honaker was using methamphetamine.

Honaker, who was 21 at the time, already was on probation when she tested positive twice for the drug.

The bigger problem?

She was pregnant.

In June 2007, LaGrange County authorities charged her with neglect of a dependent, a felony. Honaker’s ongoing case – another hearing is scheduled for Monday – reflects an issue that periodically surfaces throughout the U.S.

Should drug-addicted pregnant women be criminalized?

Opponents say prosecution of such crimes can deter a pregnant drug addict from seeking prenatal care or help for her addiction, while supporters say drug use by pregnant women causes harm and should result in punishment.

Indiana State Police Detective Jeff Boyd had received numerous tips about Honaker’s drug usage, dating back to 2005, he said in a probable cause affidavit.

When he heard Honaker was pregnant and still using drugs, he contacted the Department of Child Services, who in turn contacted Honaker’s probation officer. The probation department tested her.

On Dec. 8 and Dec. 15, 2006, she tested positive for methamphetamine. Just two months later, her baby boy was delivered by Caesarian section.

The baby tested positive for marijuana, one of more than 350 babies born since September 2006 in Indiana who have been exposed to drugs through their mothers and taken from them after birth, according to the Department of Child Services.

Drug-exposed infants are far from a new problem. A sharp increase in the number of babies born in Allen County with cocaine in their systems was first noticed in 1988, when 20 babies were exposed to the drug. Through 1993, authorities in Allen County took custody of about 150 newborns found with cocaine exposure, welfare officials said at the time.

That number has since dropped off, at least in Allen County. Since September 2006, only three infants with cocaine exposure were removed from their mothers in Allen County, the Department of Child Services said.

Data on northeast Indiana’s more rural counties hint at a different drug culture. In LaGrange County since September 2006, three infants tested positive for methamphetamine, and one – apparently Honaker’s – for marijuana.

Allen County case

Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards couldn’t remember similar formal charges in her county since the early 1990s, and she needed help recalling the name of the defendant: Catherine M. Barnett.

According to court documents:

The morning of July 30, 1993, Barnett spent several hours walking the streets of Fort Wayne. She’d been asking the men she was with – whom she’d met a few days before in Toledo – to take her to a hospital, because she believed she was having a miscarriage.

She’d gone back to using crack cocaine about six months before. She’d had problems with it in the past – she’d gotten pregnant with her four children while using.

Two weeks before, she’d found out she was pregnant again. She was about four months along.

She was bleeding that morning, but the men told her to clean herself up, because she’d have to sell herself and make them some money before they would take her to a hospital.

Eventually, she engaged in a sex act with a man who picked her up. She smoked a couple of rocks of crack cocaine.

But the pain got worse, and so did the bleeding. Police saw Barnett walking along South Calhoun Street, the back of her legs covered in blood. Paramedics were called.

At the hospital, she gave birth to a 1-pound, 1-ounce baby, Michelle Lee Barnett. Michelle, who had been on life support, died less than a week after birth.

An attorney from the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in New York City represented Barnett. If Barnett hadn’t eaten right or smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol while pregnant, those actions could also be deadly, but pregnant women aren’t jailed for them, attorney Lynn Paltrow argued.

Paltrow, who went on to found National Advocates for Pregnant Women, one of the most outspoken groups against the prosecution of pregnant drug addicts, is now executive director of that organization.

If Judge Kenneth Scheibenberger set precedent by continuing with the charges, it could dissuade other pregnant addicts from seeking prenatal care, Paltrow said.

Scheibenberger ruled that to be accused of reckless homicide in Indiana, a person must engage in reckless behavior that results in the death of a human being. A fetus, according to state law, was not a human being, he said in his ruling. The reckless homicide charge was dropped.

The issue, as Scheibenberger acknowledged in his ruling, often devolves into an argument over when human life begins – part of the core debate regarding abortion.

That debate doesn’t necessarily apply in Honaker’s case, LaGrange County Prosecutor Jeff Wible said. The judge tasked to Honaker’s case won’t be asked to judge harm to a fetus but rather issues that Honaker’s child might develop later in life.

If called to testify, a doctor who has examined Honaker’s child will say that Honaker’s meth use hasn’t caused detectable damage at this time, but that the meth use will be detrimental to the child’s health and well-being, Wible said.

“The judge will have to decide if future harm is enough to justify a conviction,” he said.

Methamphetamine use by a mother can manifest itself later in a child’s life through attention-deficit disorder and behavior disorders, according to the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute.

It’s the only time in Wible’s 5 1/2 years as prosecutor he’s had solid enough evidence of a woman using drugs while pregnant to press charges, he said. Regardless of the outcome of Honaker’s case, Wible said he would consider filing similar charges in the future if evidence presented itself.

“It’s just outrageous that she shouldn’t be charged,” he said.

Addiction struggles

In similar cases, women’s rights advocates have expressed disbelief that someone in Honaker’s situation would be charged.

In January, National Advocates for Pregnant Women and the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas filed a friend of the court brief in support of Amber Lovill.

Lovill, like Honaker, was pregnant and serving probation when she tested positive for methamphetamine.

The American Public Health Association, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the Child Welfare Organizing Project, the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative and the National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health also joined in the court brief.

National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which describes itself as focused on human and civil rights, especially those of low-income, drug-using or minority women, said drug-addicted women who continue to use while pregnant are struggling with the disease of addiction. Criminalizing them is counterproductive to both maternal and fetal health, the group contends.

That organization has also spoken out against a series of recent prosecutions in Alabama. In March, the New York Times reported that in the past 18 months at least eight women have been prosecuted for using drugs while pregnant in a southern Alabama community.

“If a pregnant woman can be viewed as a child abuser before she ever gives birth, or as a murderer because she cannot guarantee a healthy birth outcome, she ceases to exist as a full human being and full rights-bearing citizen,” the organization said in a statement on the Alabama prosecutions.

A 2006 joint study by the Indiana University School of Medicine and the Bowen Research Center, conducted for the Indiana State Department of Health, also quoted many health care providers and women as saying criminalizing pregnant women may keep them from seeking prenatal care.

A felony charge would prevent or hamper the women from furthering their education, securing better housing, having good nutrition and obtaining adequate medical care, the study said.

But with or without criminalization, treatment has to occur for the health of mother and her newborn, health care providers agree.

In January, less than a year after Honaker gave birth to her son, she was arrested in Noble County for possession of methamphetamine and marijuana, and possession of methamphetamine precursors with intent to manufacture.

That case is still pending, and Honaker, who was released on bond, could not be reached for comment for this story.