Controversial Alabama law takes newborns from mothers
12/08/2015 8:31 am PST
Alabama resident Casey Shehi is one of many new mothers who have felt the sting of the state's controversial chemical endangerment law, which gives prosecutors the authority to throw a mom in jail for up to 10 years in order to save her newborn from reckless drug use.
"I have two little boys and both pregnancies were extremely hard," said Shehi. "I started pre-term labor with both of them, so it was a lot of bed rest, and it was hard for me."
Then, one night seven months into her pregnancy, Shehi's discomfort got so bad she says she just couldn't take it anymore.
"I was going through a panic attack is what it was," said Shehi. "I knew that if I didn't calm down if I didn't stop this panic attack then I was going to go into labor."
So after doing some quick research online, Shehi asked her then-fiance for half of a Valium -- just 1 milligram. Less than most doctors give their patients for anxiety.
"The baby, he was already completely formed," said Shehi. "I knew that half of this Valuim was not going to hurt him."
Fast-forward several weeks later, and the big day finally arrives: a perfectly healthy baby boy.
"The nurse came in just a couple minutes later and she said 'I'm sorry, Casey, but you had a positive urine drug screen and we're going to have to take James to the nursery until he produces his first void to test him and see if he's positive as well."
She would be forced to wait for hours before hearing the fate of her child. Then finally, relief.
"His pediatrician gave him a full healthy report and you guys are going to go home discharged just like normal," said Shehi. "Everything's good. I was like 'Thank God this nightmare is over.'"
But it was just beginning.
"Seven weeks after he was born, I'm back at work," said Shehi. "There are three investigators out in the lobby, and one of them said, 'Yes, we have a warrant to arrest you for chemical endangerment of a child.'"
Casey Shehi was one of the nearly 2,000 women arrested since the law took effect in 2006. At the time, the chemical endangerment clause was used to help remove children from what was a rash of homemade meth labs, but now the law has been interpreted to include any unsafe environment where drugs are introduced -- including the womb.
But it's that kind of legal "tough love" that former drug user Heather Capps says was exactly what she needed.
"I was what you call a 'trash can drug user,'" said Capps. "I didn't have a preference, I would use whatever drug I could get a hold of.
"I didn't care if I lived or died," said Capp. "In my head I didn't have anything to live for."
Not even the unborn baby growing inside of her.
"I knew I was going to jail if I didn't quit using," said Capp. "I knew they had been testing people and I knew he was going to test dirty. Couldn't stop. I tried. I wanted to."
Sure enough, Capps and her newborn tested positive for drugs, and the consequences were swift.
"When they discharged me from the hospital they did it with handcuffs and a wheelchair," said Capps.
Heather Capps spent the next three months staring not through the slats in her baby's crib, but through the solid steel bars of the Etowah County Detention Center.
But as emotional as that time was, she says it was the wakeup call she needed to finally get clean.
One mother's salvation, was another's perdition.
While a grand jury would eventually decline to charge Casey Shehi, and the case has been thrown out, Shehi says that in the court of public opinion, she's still struggling to clear her name.
"I would say there's a whole lot more 'Heather' stories than there are the opposite," said Steve Marshall, Marshall County District Attorney. "And I've challenged those to otherwise proclaim what we're doing is wrong or harsh toward mothers. If they have a plan that works better than what we're doing here, show it, because right now that plan doesn't exist."