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Springfield News-Leader, Dec. 29, 2005
by Amos Bridges
A Springfield mother faces a charge of child endangerment after she and her newborn baby tested positive for methamphetamine.
Greene County Assistant Prosecutor Jill Patterson said she expected to prosecute similar cases as part of a new policy targeting mothers who use illegal drugs shortly before giving birth.
Sarah A. Weese, 19, was charged Tuesday with one count of first-degree endangering the welfare of a child, a class C felony punishable by up to seven years in prison.
A toxicology report found that Weese had methamphetamine in her system when she gave birth in May to her daughter at St. John's Hospital, according to the probable cause statement filed in the case. When questioned by a Springfield police officer, Weese admitted to smoking about a gram of methamphetamine three days before giving birth.
Tests of the baby's excrement sent to a Minnesota lab tested positive for the drug, as well.
Patterson said the new policy of charging mothers who use drugs close to childbirth is the result of conversations and "brainstorming" with pediatricians and police.
"It's something I've been aware of for quite some time," she said. Advice from doctors — who could provide expert testimony about the damage of prenatal drug use — helped establish a focus for prosecution, she said. "I've determined that how you do that, at least initially, is by prosecuting the ones who test positive at birth."
Although she hasn't ruled out filing charges in cases that involve marijuana or other drugs, Patterson said pediatricians singled out cocaine and methamphetamine as posing the most significant risks to newborns.
"There has to be a pretty clear relationship between the risks (posed by the mother's behavior) and the effects on the child," she said. "... If you're using meth close to birth, there are very immediate risks."
Patterson said officers won't be looking at tests taken as part of prenatal care. "We don't want to discourage prenatal care ... I don't think having a policy that says we're looking at people who test positive at birth should do that."
Patterson said that as part of the new effort, she has been working with police to establish a system that would initiate a police response when a new mother tests positive for drugs — a similar system triggers newborn crisis assessments by the Missouri Department of Social Services' Children's Division.
Deborah Scott, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services, said the agency does not track the number of children removed from their parents by type of drug — yet. But drugs, especially methamphetamine, are often a factor.
"We track the number of children that are removed from their parents annually due to a drug-related cause," Scott said Wednesday. "... Of the approximately 11,000 children in the Children's Division's custody, about 29 percent of them had parental drug use as a condition of removal (as of March, 2005)."
She said the agency is working to modify its automated system to track methamphetamine-related cases separately. Preliminary data on meth-related cases is expected in the first quarter of 2006.