Skip to content

Pregnant Drug Users in Alabama Getting Jail Time Instead of Help

March 16, 2008

A recent New York Times article profiles the problem of pregnant drug users, focusing on an Alabama law used to jail the women and a district attorney who apparently believes this is a reasonable solution. An excerpt:

The environment can be unforgiving. Rachel Barfoot, 31, who had been charged before with beating her niece, told her probation officer that she was pregnant. When she tested positive for cocaine, she was arrested.


“I was in shock,” said Ms. Barfoot. “I told the truth, but the truth got me nowhere,” she said in an interview. Three months pregnant, already a mother of four, she spent five weeks in the Covington County Jail.


“It was hell,” said Ms. Barfoot, now jobless and struggling. Police affidavits make it clear that local doctors are cooperating in these investigations.


The women are sent off to county jails, state prisons, or drug rehabilitation clinics, and often emerge bitter at the collaboration of police, prosecutors, judges, doctors and social workers they say is less keen on help — Mr. Gambril insists otherwise — than punishment.


“In Covington County, I don’t think they’re interested in helping mothers,” Ms. Hitson said. “They’re just sending people straight to prison. It doesn’t help their drug problems.”

Although the article doesn’t point to the specific new law that is used to jail these women, but I assume it is Section 26-15-3.2 of Alabama code, which makes it a class C felony to “Knowingly, recklessly, or intentionally causes or permits a child to be exposed to, to ingest or inhale, or to have contact with a controlled substance, chemical substance, or drug paraphernalia as defined in Section 13A-12-260. A violation under this subdivision is a Class C felony.” This piece of law makes no distinction for pregnant women to take into account the dismal health care of prison and the inappropriateness of that environment for a pregnant woman. It also ignores the option of rehabilitation as a potentially more socially responsible fix, at least on a situation-by-situation basis. The article does note that some women have been sent to rehab, but the law as written doesn’t seem to specifically call for that option.

The times should have spoken with someone from National Advocates for Pregnant Women on this issue; the organization explains their position:

By combining claims of fetal rights with the war on drugs, new laws that punish pregnant women and families are being enacted and enforced. There is consensus in the medical community that addiction is a public health issue and that treating drug use during pregnancy as a crime undermines the health of both women and children. Yet fetal rights advocates in some states have convinced police, prosecutors, judges that addiction itself may be punished if the addict or drug user is a pregnant woman and that a pregnant woman’s addiction should be treated as a form of civil child abuse. These cases and statutes are having a devastating effect on women’s reproductive and human rights as well as public health, drug policy reform efforts, family life, and efforts for racial equality.

More information on this issue is provided at

16 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2008 11:27 am

    I am afraid that the lady in question has done time for drug abuse but nothing was said about her beating her niece, surely this is also a crime. In the UK the law states that mom and dads are not allowed to smack their child let alone that of another person`s. I say do not do the crime if you can not do the time.

  2. March 16, 2008 11:50 am


    What’s frustrating about this is that people/society has this expectation that when a woman becomes pregnant, that she should be able to just stop drinking/drugging/fill in the blank. Would they expect this of a non-pregnant person looking for addiction help or support? I’d imagine not.

    Pregnancy does not allow one to become immune to a disease that has been a battle for most of their lives. When a pregnant woman, who is an addict but asks for help, is punishing her and throwing her in jail the help she was looking for?

  3. March 16, 2008 1:18 pm

    Labor Nurse, exactly. You wouldn’t expect someone to just stop having diabetes or a mental health problem, either. And Kacy, this post was clearly about the drug abuse issue – which likely contributes to other problems you mention.

  4. March 16, 2008 5:32 pm

    Am I the only person, too, wondering what happened to her born children while she was in jail? And also, doesn’t jail seem like just about the worst, least healthy place for a pregnant woman? How does putting her in jail help anyone?

  5. Meg permalink
    March 16, 2008 5:40 pm

    I am sorry, but I disagree with you Labor Nurse. It doesn’t state that she asked for help from her probation officer, but that she told them she was pregnant and tested positive for cocaine. It is quite possible that they were two separate incidents.

    The law also states “child” from what I read above. In many states a fetus is only a child after a certain amount of weeks or it has taken it’s first breath. This women was jailed because she violated her probation by testing positive for drugs. The fact that she was pregnant at the time, is almost a secondary issue that was played up because of the new law.

    Yes we do need rehabilitation for pregnant users, but I think we should examine the law more, and this woman’s actions, less.

  6. March 16, 2008 8:21 pm

    Meg, I think I can speak for Labor Nurse, Aunt B, and myself when I say that regardless of an individual anecdote, the truly worrisome part is this notion that prison is an appropriate place for a pregnant woman and that it is any kind of solution to a drug problem, which we tend to think is not the case.

  7. March 17, 2008 8:32 am

    I have to say that this story does not surprise us. It is very typical of the press coverage of this issue over the years. It is something of a victory tough that the story did not use such biased and misleading terms as “crack” or “meth babies.” Nevertheless it is disappointing that years of research concluding that prenatal exposure to illegal drugs does not cause unique or even extreme harms that would in any way justify the arrest of pregnant women (and we did send this info to this journalist) is reported as “the effects of drugs on pregnant women and their fetuses are not fully known.” What is “fully known” is that every leading medical and public health organization to take a position on the issue opposes what the local prosecutor is doing, that there is not enough drug treatment available in any state in this country for all the men and women who need and want it, that prisons and jails often increase the risks to inmate’s health, and that research on the effects of prenatal exposure to cocaine and methamphetamine does not find a causal link to stillbirths or infant death. In fact, the law the prosecutor is relying on was not intended to reach the context of pregnancy and in the past an Alabama court threw out a similar prosecution because it recognized that both as a matter of law and policy, application of child protection laws in a way that transforms pregnant women with addictions and other health problems into child abuser even before they give birth — undermines rather than advances both maternal and fetal health. If you oppose the policy of arrest please write to Gregory L. Gambril
    District Attorney
    Covington County Courthouse
    100 North Court Square
    Andalusia, Alabama 36420-3996
    and copy the Governor, Attorney General, and head of the state’s Department of Health.
    Lynn Paltrow, ED
    National Advocates for Pregnant Women

  8. March 17, 2008 3:26 pm

    Every case is different but in general sending a pregerent woman to jail doesnt seem right. Drug rehab would be a better solution

  9. March 18, 2008 8:30 am

    Jail is a terrible place for a pregnant women for financial, psychological, health and emotional reasons. Unless they keep the woman in jail until she delivers, then there is no way it will save the fetus from drug use.

  10. mchele permalink
    March 29, 2008 6:44 pm

    Is the prosecutor also charging the industries that pollute Alabama’s air, water and soil with poison, mercury, ethanol, pesticides (all known to cause damage to the fetus and child) with felony child abuse or does the law only apply to Mother’s with the disease of addiction?

  11. March 30, 2008 2:57 pm

    Mchele, that is a very astute point.

  12. Deb permalink
    April 26, 2008 9:35 pm

    I’m confused that they consider drug use during pregnancy to be a crime. The woman could have an abortion – which kills the baby and there are no repurcussions. But test positive for a drug, which doesn’t kill the baby, and you land in jail. What a world we live in!!!!

  13. Lizzy permalink
    April 30, 2008 1:05 am

    With so many dangerous drugs making the scene these days it is so important to “just say no”. Take for instance Meth; Pregnant Meth addicts rarely kick the habit during or after pregnancy especially if left to their own devices ( i.e. no monitoring or accountability ),monitoring a Meth addict is close to impossible without confinement.
    I’ve had six years of experience with Meth Moms and their children, everytime Mom is high the fetus is at least tweny times higher than Mom. But the worst part is that Meth addicts aren’t occasional users, they are constant users and terrible parents,these children suffer so much at the hands of their addict parents ( usually Mom as Dad is likely not in the picture ) . Meth produces insanity and it would turn your stomach to actually know what most of these children endure at the hands of the one who should love them the most. These children are of NO value to the Meth addict unless they can be used as a means to obtain drugs.
    There is no easy answer but folks some drastic measures must be taken by someone somewhere, this situation is critical and political correctness will not save these children.

  14. Mom to Drug exposed kids permalink
    May 14, 2008 10:27 pm

    I agree with Lizzy 100%! We have adopted 6 meth exposed kids/babies and let me tell you IT DOES AFFECT THEM just because it doesn’t abort them. They suffer strokes in utero and will have life long problems from the abuse-YES ABUSE they suffered in the womb. There are 3 birthmothers to my children and a total of 18 children they have given birth to and they have custody of none. I have been dealing with this first hand for years and it’s sad to say they don’t care about anything but themselves when they are high but true. They need to be in rehab or jail until the birth of the baby if they are caught using any illegal substances and that’s the bottom line. Unless you’ve raised one of these children or dealt first hand with the suffering they endure, you have no idea. Rights? What about my 6 babies rights to not be abused. I hope and pray that all 50 states follow Alabamas law for our future leaders sake.


  1. Drug-Addicted Women Need Medical Care, Not Jail « Women’s Health News
  2. Why Was This Woman Separated from Her Baby? « Women’s Health News

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: