A proposal that would see babies taken at birth from drug or alcohol addicted mothers who refuse help is a knee-jerk reaction that could disadvantage vulnerable women, according to Charles Sturt University (CSU) social work lecturer Dr Fredrik Velander
Legislation has been introduced to the NSW Parliament that would see pregnant women who abuse drugs or alcohol, or who are in a violent relationship, be made to sign a Parental Responsibility Contract ordering them to undergo treatment or risk losing their child.
Legal and ethical questions
“From a needs perspective it is unquestionably a step in the right direction considering the increasing rates of babies born with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder and drug addiction, which is indicative of the problematic relationship many Australians have with alcohol and other drugs,” he said.
“But from a legal and ethical perspective it raises questions as to how this is to be enforced as well as what legal rights come into play in situations like these.”
Dr Velander said the NSW Family and Community Services have the mandate to take appropriate action to care and protect children.
“The definition of a child is ‘a person who is under the age of 16 years.’ The question that comes out of this proposal is when does a child fall under the mandate of DOCS?” he said “Can this happen prior to birth?”
Reaction when prevention is needed
Dr Velander also questions the effectiveness of the proposed legislation.
“If the intention is to force prospective mothers into treatment and abstinence during pregnancy, which in reality is of greatest benefit for the unborn child, it contradicts a range of human rights legislations where the individual has the right to self-governance,” he said.
“If this is not the intention, then the legislation stands the risk of turning into a toothless tiger that will end up having the health sector and DOCS taking care of severely damaged children.
“The end result would then be a group of children that are severely disadvantaged and it will incur a significant cost both financially and in terms of human suffering.
“What this legislation inadvertently highlights is the need to approach the current trend of excessive alcohol and other drugs use from a more proactive angle. We need to enter into an open discussion about our relationship with alcohol and other drugs and how excessive use affects the general population, either directly or indirectly.”
It’s been reported that women who are subjected to domestic violence will also be covered in the proposed laws and Dr Velander believes that approach could have devastating consequences.
“Firstly it puts the onus of terminating a violent relationship on the mother, re-victimising her through the threat of removing her child at birth. This will only be an incentive for women to hide their experiences,” he said.
“Furthermore it is likely that the abuser may increase his violence towards the woman as payback for disclosing the abuse to authorities. Literature clearly shows that an abused woman is at greatest risk of escalating violence including homicide at the time she attempts to leave the abusive relationship.”
Dr Velander argues that domestic violence is a lot more complex than alcohol or drug addiction because there is a third person involved.
“The law should be applied to the abuser, making him accountable for his actions. Thus the abuser should be forced to move out of the family home, and a restraining order taken out against him in the baby's name,” said Dr Velander.
“This appears be a knee jerk reaction to two rather complex issues that require a more comprehensive approach than the introduction of legislation that stands the chance of further disadvantaging two already vulnerable groups.”