Mom charged after drugs in breast milk killed baby, prosecutors say

In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, prosecutors are arguing that 30-year-old Samantha Jones killed her 11-week-old son, R.J., by breastfeeding while using drugs.

According to the criminal complaint, R.J. died from ingesting a “combination of fatal drugs through breast milk” and is being charged with criminal homicide.

Jones’ attorney, Louis Busico, said that Jones “absolutely, unequivocally loved that child” and never intended to harm him.

According to an affidavit, Jones told investigators that about 3 a.m. April 2, she heard R.J. crying.

He had been primarily breastfed, Jones said, but she had recently started using formula because she worried that he wasn’t getting enough milk and wasn’t sleeping. She was too tired to make a bottle of formula, according to the affidavit, so she decided to nurse him. She then dozed on and off for a few more hours.

Before her husband, Vincent McGovern, left for the day, he made R.J. a bottle and left it with Jones. She remembers feeding R.J., putting him back in his bassinet around 6:30 a.m. and going back to sleep.

In the affidavit, Jones said she woke up about an hour later and panicked when she saw that R.J. was pale and had bloody mucus coming out of his nose. Jones and her mother, who also lived in the house, called 911 and began CPR.

R.J. was taken to a hospital by ambulance and pronounced dead by 8:30 a.m.

According to the Bucks County Coroner’s Office, the autopsy revealed traces of methadone, amphetamine and methamphetamine were found in the infant’s blood and contributed to his death.

The affidavit further noted that the examiner who performed the autopsy said “R.J. ingested the combination of fatal drugs through breast milk.”

According to the affidavit, Jones told the investigators that she had been prescribed methadone since pregnancy to help manage her addiction to opioid painkillers, but there is no mention of other drugs.

Investigators say they tested the bottle last used to feed R.J., as well as the can of formula, and found no traces of illicit drugs.

Since her arrest, Busico said, his client is “completely in a state of depression.” He added that the charges and arrest kicked Jones when she was already down, dealing with the death of her child.

When asked about amphetamine or methamphetamine drug use by Jones, Busico would not comment.

At Jones’ preliminary hearing on Wednesday, Deputy District Attorney Kristin M. McElroy argued that the child died because Jones had taken methamphetamine and amphetamine, “which had no business being inside that baby,” according to a press release from the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office,

Through her attorney, Jones declined to speak with CNN.

Drug epidemic and pregnant women

There have been just a handful of cases in which mothers have been criminally charged in cases related to drugs and breastfeeding.

In the medical literature, the cases of fatal infant poisonings by breastfeeding are also few and far between.

But as a drug overdose epidemic continues to ravage America, prosecutors have become more aggressive in charging drug overdose cases as homicides.

The crisis extends to pregnant women, as well. The CDC’s latest numbers say the rate of women delivering babies while abusing opioids has more than quadrupled between 1999 and 2014.

It’s a public health problem that doctors say needs medical attention, for the benefit of both the user and the child — and that can extend to breastfeeding.

‘Narratives of blame’?

Experts said the details of Jones’ case are key to understanding what happened: How were the toxicology tests performed? Were the results confirmed in follow-up testing? Was Jones tested for the same substances to corroborate her as a source of the drugs in R.J.’s blood? What levels of drugs were found in R.J.’s blood? Was Jones prescribed any stimulants?

Substance abuse is a clinical condition, said Dr. Amina White, a bioethicist and an obstetrician-gynecologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

“It requires clinical intervention. It would be highly problematic to charge someone with criminal wrongdoing who is in fact seeking or in need of or already undergoing treatment for a substance use disorder,” White said. “One would hope that the response to this very unfortunate case would be: What can we do to better support someone like her?” she said.

Lynn Paltrow, an attorney and founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, said criminal charges like those facing Jones are part of the larger war on drugs narrative. Paltrow worries about the public health ramifications that can follow from charges like this and ultimately discourage women from breastfeeding, and hospitals from following the scientific evidence.

“They have far more to do with political expediency and popular narratives of blame than anything about science,” she said.


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