January 4, 1999
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: When this young Wisconsin mother was ordered into treatment for cocaine addiction while pregnant with this child, it set off a controversy whose impact is still being felt in the state. Physician Dr. Matthew Meyer discovered the cocaine addiction through blood tests.
DR. MATTHEW MEYER: There were repetitive positive tests showing cocaine exposure, and the social work department got concerned about it; we certainly did and advised her medically.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Dr. Meyer took his concerns about Angela Wolf to William Domina, Waukesha County's senior assistant corporation counsel.
WILLIAM DOMINA, Assistant Corporation Counsel, Waukesha County: It had a patient who he felt was violating the child abuse law. In Wisconsin, physicians have to report child abuse as a mandatory requirement. He felt that this - Angela's conduct was violative of that law because she was 36 weeks in gestation, and she was continuing to use cocaine during the course of that pregnancy, and he felt it had potential serious injurious effect on the to-be-born child.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Domina says Wolf was ordered into treatment because lower courts ruled that her fetus could be considered a child when enforcing child abuse laws. But that's not what the Wisconsin Supreme Court said.
WILLIAM DOMINA: The Supreme Court on a vote of four to three said that because the Wisconsin legislature had not expressly included the word "fetus" in the definition of child, under the child abuse statute, that it was not going to impute that, despite our arguments, and reversed the detention and basically said go to the legislature if you have any desire for, you know, remedy, and we did.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Domina went to State Senator Joanne Huelsman, who is from Angela Wolf's hometown. Huelsman agreed that legislation was needed to address the problem of drug and alcohol abuse by pregnant women.
JOANNE HUELSMAN, Wisconsin State Senator: And looking at the total number of people - number of kids that are born addicted to cocaine or alcohol, I decided that this was really something that was in the realm of a public health problem and that we should be doing something about.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Senator Huelsman was also influenced by a case involving alcohol in nearby Racine, Wisconsin. On March 16, 1996, Deborah Zimmerman, who was then pregnant, was served a drink by bartender Dennis Peterson.
DENNIS PETERSON, Bartender: Sat down at the bar, proceeded telling jokes and so forth, and then -
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: At that point did you think she was pregnant?
DENNIS PETERSON: No, not at all. In fact, my girlfriend was sitting right next to her, and she didn't think she was pregnant, and she wanted to tell me a secret, and she said she's going to have a baby. I took her glass away and gave her 7-Up. I said she shouldn't be drinking. She started crying, and I thought I offended her. But then she says no, you don't understand, she said, I'm going to have the baby now.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: When Deborah Zimmerman's mother brought her here to St. Luke's Hospital, she was reportedly very drunk. She allegedly ripped fetal heart monitors from her baby and reportedly said to hospital personnel, "If you don't keep me here, I'm just going to go home and keep on drinking and drink myself to death, and I'm going to kill this thing because I don't want it anyway." Zimmerman's blood alcohol level was .302 before delivery, well above the legal limit of .10. At birth, her baby had a level of .199 and was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome. The assistant district attorney in Racine County, Joan Korb, filed attempted homicide charges against Zimmerman. It was the first time in Wisconsin that criminal charges had been filed against a pregnant woman for attempting to kill her fetus by abusing alcohol.
JOAN KORB, Assistant District Attorney, Racine County: We have to criminally charge some of these people because that's going to be the only way we're going to deter that behavior.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Zimmerman was represented by then public defender Sally Hoelzel.
SALLY HOELZEL, Former Public Defender: What she is alleged to have done is not a crime; it does not fall under the definitions that are listed in our criminal code.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Hoelzel appealed the court's decision to press criminal charges. The appeal is now pending before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Public outrage over Zimmerman and Wolf, dubbed "the cocaine mom," prompted Senator Huelsman to draft a cocaine mom bill.
JOANNE HUELSMAN: The bill is designed to provide treatment for women who are addicted to some sort of substance - alcohol or other drugs - who is unable to overcome that addiction on her own.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The bill sailed through the legislature and was signed into law this summer. It makes Wisconsin the second state - after South Carolina - to order a woman into treatment if she is abusing drugs or alcohol while pregnant. Despite the Zimmerman case, there are no criminal penalties and no termination of parental rights. Corporation counsel Domina says it is the bill he was hoping for.
WILLIAM DOMINA: If the woman will not go to that facility because she's in denial or because she is limited intellectually or socially or however, we need to be able to do something to promote the interest of the child.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But here at Meta House, a residential treatment center in Milwaukee for women who abuse drugs or alcohol, the impact of the new legislation is seen very differently. Francine Feinberg has been the director of the program for the last 15 years.
FRANCINE FEINBERG: The number one barrier to treatment and for getting prenatal care for substance-abusing women is the fear of being taken into custody and losing their children. And I know the bill is a treatment bill, but, in fact, it does take people into custody. If we had a barrier before, it was the size of a fence, and now we have a barrier the size of a mountain.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Normally, there are fifteen to twenty pregnant women in the Meta House program. On the day we visited after the bill was signed, there were three. Alice Logan came to Meta House just after she delivered a cocaine-addicted baby. Why didn't she come when she was pregnant?
ALICE LOGAN: I was scared. You know, I thought that I'd go to the doctor; they would arrest me until I had the baby; and after the baby, I would be arrested - you know - kept in custody and my child will be taken.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Logan was never in danger of being arrested. Under the new law she could have been ordered into treatment, but that distinction is often lost on the street, says this former cocaine addict and Meta House graduate who uses the name Kelly.
KELLY: I've heard a lot of different stories and saw a lot of different things happening because of women not getting a full understanding of the bill and being afraid that they're going to be arrested, and I've been around women that waited till the last minute, you know, when they're in labor, and I've known women to have their children in toilets, in basements on mattresses, different mattresses in different places - afraid to go to the doctor.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Angela Wolfe's mother says her daughter did not do well when she was ordered into treatment while pregnant. Sharon Wolfe has custody of her daughter's oldest son. The state took custody of the son she had after being ordered into treatment. The treatment was not successful, Wolfe continued to abuse cocaine, and again became pregnant, but this time she voluntarily sought help.
SHARON WOLFE: When you're being forced to do something, your intention that you're not going to do it. So, she actually proved to them that she can do it on her own if she really wanted to.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And how long has she been in treatment now?
SHARON WOLFE: Well, she's been in since April.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And how is she doing?
SHARON WOLFE: She's doing great. The baby's doing good.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Do you think she'll get to keep this baby?
SHARON WOLFE: Oh, yes.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Domina and Huelsman's experience with the cocaine mom bill brought them to Washington in July to testify before a House committee considering national legislation dealing with drugs and alcohol abuse by pregnant women. Legislators also heard from politicians and practitioners from South Carolina, the only state in the nation that imposes criminal penalties for women who abuse drugs or alcohol during pregnancy. The director of a residential treatment center in South Carolina says the law has made a difference in many women's lives.
PAULA KELLER, Residential Treatment Center Director: I really wish it could have been Amanda and her baby Amber or Jackie and her babies Whitney and Ray-ray. Each of those women would have said the same thing to you. I carry their message for them in the terminology which they used. If it wasn't for the law, I'd still be out there.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But she didn't convince Wisconsin's Francine Feinberg, who was also invited to testify.
FRANCINE FEINBERG: Recently, two pregnant women left treatment because we were unable to convince them that we would not turn them over to the authorities. In an attempt to help a few women and their children, these approaches will adversely impact many others who would have sought help but now will heighten fear.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The debate will continue as more states, as well as the Congress, consider legislation to protect the fetus from drug and alcohol abuse by their mothers.