HELENA — Pregnant women with drug addictions who are jailed in Lake County will now receive treatment to prevent sudden withdrawal symptoms that risk their health and that of their unborn children.
The new policy was part of a recent settlement after a woman sued the county for cutting off her medication to treat her addiction to opiate drugs when she was jailed in 2009. Bethany Cajune was four or five months pregnant at the time, and she said the withdrawal threatened the survival of her fetus and placed her at risk of physical and mental harm.
The county's denial of necessary medication was unconstitutional, she claimed. She requested that a federal judge force the county to change its policies so that other inmates don't face similar risks.
The county agreed to the new policy on Monday, and U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy dismissed the case on Tuesday, according to court records.
"The issue here is making sure that pregnant women are safe and receiving appropriate medication while they are in jail," said Jennifer Giuttari, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, which represented Cajune. "Women don't give up that right just because they're incarcerated."
Giuttari said she doesn't know how widespread the problem is, but was hopeful other counties would look at the new Lake County policy as an example to follow.
"Our hope is that they will see this policy, that it is not a great impact on their resources to provide appropriate medical care to women who are in their care," she said.
The policy requires authorities at the Lake County Detention Center to screen for women who are pregnant and report a history of opiate use. Women who fit that description are to be examined by an obstetrician or a physician with an obstetrical practice to assess their risk of withdrawal.
The doctor sets a plan of care that can include continuation of the medication the women were using in their addiction treatment.
Detention center staff will be trained on the new policy and it will be explained to every female inmate who might be pregnant. In exchange, the county admits no wrongdoing and no fees or damages were awarded.
Lake County attorney Mitchell Young said Wednesday he was unaware of the deal. The attorney who defended the county in the lawsuit, Michael Sehestedt of the Montana Association of Counties, did not immediately return a message left at his office Wednesday.
Cajune, who was 25 at the time she filed the lawsuit in 2009, reported to Lake County Detention Center in March of that year to complete a sentence on traffic violations, according to the ACLU. She was the mother of five children and in an addiction program that prescribed the use of Suboxone, which, like methadone, suppresses withdrawal symptoms.
She claimed in the lawsuit that she was denied the medication for nine days while she was held in the detention center, until a public defender secured her release through a court order.
Abrupt withdrawal could cause decreased blood flow to the placenta and a lack of oxygen for the fetus, and could lead to premature birth, low birth weight and even the fetus' death, the lawsuit said.
Cajune gave birth to the baby she was pregnant with during her detention and the child is healthy, Giuttari said.