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Charges dismissed against drug-abusing moms

6:57 PM, Apr 1, 2013   |    comments
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  • Hundreds of babies are born in Tennessee each year dependent on drugs.
  • District Attorney General Lori Phillips-Jones dismissed charges against two Campbell County women

Several mothers jailed and charged for taking illegal drugs while pregnant have seen their cases dismissed.

An article in the Tennessean explains how police and prosecutors around the state were surprised to learn about a change in state law, which protects those mothers from criminal charges.

The paper reports, even the state attorney general overlooked the change in a written opinion released at the beginning of the year. That opinion was revised in February, explaining women could no longer be charged with assault or homicide against their unborn children.

Some confusion followed the change.

In March, officials arrested two Campbell County women and charged them with aggravated assault after deputies say the women admitted to using drugs while they were pregnant. According to the Campbell County Sheriff's Department, Johnna Ogg and Amanda Lyttle both gave birth at UT Medical Center last year, and their babies were treated in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

"The law changed, effective July 2012. The attorney general's opinion came out in February of 2013," explained Lori Phillips-Jones, the District Attorney for the 8th Judicial District.  "The opinion goes out, but we don't always have notice," she said.

Phillips-Jones ultimately dismissed the charges against Ogg and Lyttle.

"It was very disappointing, because the ramifications for those children is so great that they ought to be held accountable for their actions," she said. "It's sad."

Assistant public defender Bill Jones, who represented Lyttle during her case, is familiar with both the old and new versions of the law.

"I had cases like this before. In preparing for her case, I found the change in the law and the new attorney general's opinion, and I had that ready for court," he said. "The charge was dismissed prior to her first court date.

Jones says he doesn't expect sympathy for women who use drugs during pregnancy, but believes there are solutions other than prosecution.

"Everyone wants the same outcome. We want healthy children, and we want mothers who have the skills and ability to take care of these children. It's just how we get there," he said. "I do not believe that this problem is best dealt with through criminal punishment."

The number of babies born drug-dependent has skyrocketed in recent years. At East Tennessee Children's Hospital, nurses say those cases represent 30 to 50 percent of the babies in NICU on any given day.

Lawmakers could soon change the laws again, as they consider HB1295, which allows prosecutors to charge women for prenatal drug abuse.

Lawmakers have also advanced the "Safe Harbor Act," legislation that offers priority prenatal treatment and rehab to pregnant mothers addicted to drugs.

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