Suit against Wisconsin’s ‘cocaine mom’ law could go to trial this year


A lawsuit challenging a Wisconsin law that allows the state to detain pregnant women suspected of drug or alcohol abuse is scheduled for trial in May.

The suit, filed in 2014 in U.S. District Court in Madison by former Wisconsin resident Tammy Loertscher, claims the 1998 law is unconstitutional. It is sometimes called the “cocaine mom” law because concern about “crack babies” was paramount at the time.

Loertscher was living in Medford in 2014 when she sought a pregnancy test and help for depression and a thyroid problem, according to the suit. At Mayo Clinic in Eau Claire, she told a doctor she had used methamphetamine and marijuana but stopped taking them when she thought she was pregnant.

Tests showed Loertscher was 14 weeks pregnant and had traces of the drugs in her body, the suit says. A Taylor County judge ordered her into inpatient drug treatment. When she refused, she was taken to the county jail for 18 days, including 36 hours in solitary confinement, until she agreed to urinalysis throughout her pregnancy.

Between 2005 and 2014, the state made claims of abuse of fetuses against 467 women based on the law, said Nancy Rosenbloom, director of legal advocacy for National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which is representing Loertscher. In at least 152 cases, authorities removed children from their parents after birth, Rosenbloom said.

A handful of states — including Minnesota, Oklahoma and South Dakota — have similar laws, Rosenbloom said. Wisconsin’s law is unique in allowing for the provision of attorneys for the fetus but not the pregnant woman being detained, and for handling the cases in juvenile court where records are confidential, she said.

Some doctors say the law harms women and children because it discourages pregnant women struggling with addiction from seeking prenatal care or being open about drug use.

“The law increases the stigma of addiction and decreases the willingness of pregnant women who struggle with substance use to seek prenatal care and addiction treatments,” Dr. Aleksandra Zgierska, president of the Wisconsin chapter of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, and Dr. Kathy Hartke, chair of the Wisconsin section of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, wrote in a Wisconsin State Journal opinion column in December.

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