In recent years, Alabama authorities have been aggressive about removing newborns from the custody of mothers who abuse drugs, typically placing a baby with a relative or foster family under a safety plan that can continue for months or years, reports ProPublica. Passed in 2006 as methamphetamine ravaged communities, the law targeted parents who turned their kitchens and garages into home-based drug labs, putting their children at peril. Prosecutors and courts began applying the law to women who exposed their embryo or fetus to controlled substances in utero. A woman can be charged with chemical endangerment from the earliest weeks of pregnancy, even if her baby is born perfectly healthy. The penalties are exceptionally stiff: one to 10 years in prison if the baby suffers no ill effects, 10 to 20 years if the baby shows signs of exposure or harm and 10 to 99 years if the baby dies.
ProPublica and AL.com filed public information requests to identify the more than 1,800 women arrested under the chemical endangerment law. The data showed that at least 479 new and expecting mothers have been prosecuted, more than three times the number previously identified. Many others have been investigated in the chemical-endangerment version of stop-and-frisk, their lives turned upside down by a dragnet of drug testing without their knowledge or, sometimes, their explicit consent. The law’s goal is to protect children by removing them from unsafe settings and mothers too impaired and unstable to provide proper care. Prosecutors contend the law has prompted hundreds of women to get treatment and restart their lives, with prison as the price for those who choose not to or who fail. There's nothing in the statute to distinguish between an addict who puts her baby at grave risk and a stressed-out single mom who takes a harmless dose of a friend's anti-anxiety medication.