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Lack of data on substance use during pregnancy poses issues for legislative committees

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A doctor performs an ultrasound scan on a pregnant woman at a hospital in Chicago in 2018. Wyoming lawmakers declined to enact criminal penalties for using methamphetamine or narcotics while pregnant. 

While some Wyoming lawmakers are pushing to punish women for using drugs while pregnant, the state lacks data on the matter.

As it stands, the Equality State does not collect data on how many infants are born addicted to substances or infants who are born to mothers who used narcotics during their pregnancies.

If a mother is exhibiting signs of withdrawal or addiction, the procedure to address the situation is different based on the hospital. The hospital can report the matter to the Department of Family Services, but it’s likely that happens infrequently.

Last year, the Department of Family Services received only 115 reports of children born while suffering from drug withdrawal, said Korin Schmidt, director of the department. Of those, 37 children were taken into protective custody.

“We do not have statewide data and we do not have data on every child born,” Schmidt said.

Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, brought a bill in the 2022 budget session that would have criminalized the use of controlled substances during pregnancy.

Wyoming is one of eight states without a law on the books to address the issue of pregnant women using drugs. Oakley believes that there is a gap in Wyoming’s law. But others, like attorney and Judiciary Committee member Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, had their doubts.

The bill ultimately failed, but two legislative committees — the Joint Judiciary and Joint Health committees — have the topic slated for the upcoming interim session. It’s relatively uncommon for two committees to take up the same issue.

Oakley expressed skepticism that the interim will help a future bill become law.

“I don’t think further discussion will change anybody’s mind,” she said.

The Joint Judiciary Committee dealt with a similar issue last interim.

Multiple people testified that the committee needed to address the fact that Wyoming incarcerates children at one of the highest rates in the nation. When the committee started to dig into the issue, the panel found that there is no comprehensive data on multiple aspects of the juvenile justice system, let alone what proportion of the state’s kids have been incarcerated.

The committee then successfully brought and passed a bill that requires the Department of Family Services to start collecting data on juvenile justice in the state.

Nethercott said that the lack of data collection on infants born to mothers who used drugs is “completely unacceptable.”

“If we really want to understand how to address this issue, I think that’s a fundamental place to start,” she said.

Follow state politics reporter Victoria Eavis on Twitter @Victoria_Eavis


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