Volume 30

Maternal Substance Use: How the MLP Model Can Address Issues Surrounding Mandatory Reporting Laws

by Carly Loughran

Prenatal exposure to controlled substances can have devastating effects on a child’s life outcomes and development. The villainization of addiction has produced mandatory reporting laws that impose harsh civil and criminal penalties on women who use substances while pregnant. While politicians and policymakers claim to be acting in the best interest of children when enacting these laws, in reality, they harm children and decrease the likelihood that mothers will stop using controlled substances. While the political conception of addiction has evolved, the chilling effect of civil and criminal penalties on mothers has remained constant. While repealing mandatory reporting laws may be infeasible, Medical Legal Partnerships (MLPs) can neutralize the harmful effects of these laws, increase the likelihood mothers engage and stay engaged in treatment, and take the burden of navigating legal systems off medical providers.

MLPs are uniquely equipped to address the needs of substance-using pregnant women. Unlike Assertive Community Treatment or drug court programs, MLPs address health-harming legal needs, are multi-generational, are tailored to the needs of pregnant women, and take pressure off providers. MLPs address health-harming legal needs by providing legal solutions for housing, employment, custody, and disability issues contributing to a mother’s substance use. MLPs serve the unique needs of both mothers and their families. Finally, MLPs take the pressure off medical providers who have neither the training nor the bandwidth to effectively guide patients through complex civil and criminal legal systems. In an environment without MLPs, mandatory reporting laws will discourage pregnant women from engaging in prenatal or substance use treatment, and harmful prenatal exposure to controlled substances will continue.

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