The Guardian newspaper in the UK is reporting on a proposed law in the state of Victoria, Australia that would create a criminal offence for anyone knowing of child abuse to not report it. Earlier this month, The Huffington Post told of the law passed in Tennessee that would allow the incarceration of women abusing drugs while pregnant.
Both of these legislated actions are well meaning. One is designed to ensure that children can be protected from the impact of drug abuse prior to birth. The other is designed to increase the rate at which abuse is reported and can thus be addressed. Yet both fail due to the unintended consequences. They are the actions of politicians who grasp on to a problem and then seek the simple answer. They are able to justify the action based upon the desirable goal – reduce harm to children.
What is so often missed though, are the unintended consequences. Let’s look at the notion of incarcerating a pregnant women. As a student in one of my classes pointed out when we were discussing this, what stress arises for the mother being in jail? How will that impact the baby? How will withdrawal be managed in jail? I also wonder about the capacity of many jails to be drug free.
The Australian example raises a number of questions for non professionals. Does this mean that the neighbour who suspects that abuse is going on would be charged because they did not report suspicions? What of an adult child who has been the victim of abuse, knows that the abuser is still doing it, but still believes the threats to kill that the abuser has held over the victims head for years? What of the spouse who lives in terror of what will happen to her and the children if the abuser is found out – as the abuser has warned her that he will kill her and the kids? Or the mother who has been told by the violent partner that if anyone finds out she will never see her kids again? Are these people to be criminalized?
Putting someone through the criminal justice system, putting someone in jail, costs a lot of money. Why not spend that money on health care, rehabilitation and safety services? In other words, why not do something that will really help?
If you incarcerate pregnant women using drugs, then you drive them away from services that can address the addiction or substance abuse. If you criminalize a victim of abuse who was too afraid to tell, then you drive the victims further underground.
Let us not also forget that when you put people in jail, you fracture families. This too is an unintended consequence of these actions creating more victims – the children left behind. The policy makers should be asking with each proposal – is this the best solution available?