By Duff Wilson
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate subcommittee on children and families wants a congressional watchdog agency to investigate whether states are complying with a federal law meant to protect newborns in drug withdrawal and help their families.
In a letter sent this week to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Senator Robert Casey of Pennsylvania asked that the probe examine what steps Congress or the Obama Administration could take "to improve compliance and save the lives of vulnerable infants."
The request comes in response to a Reuters investigation in December that identified the preventable deaths of 110 babies whose mothers used opioids during pregnancy and were subsequently sent home to families ill-equipped to care for them.
A 2003 federal law calls on states to require that healthcare workers notify child protection services when a baby is born affected by illegal substance abuse or has symptoms of drug withdrawal. Such reports are not to be used as evidence of abuse, the law says, but rather to help develop a “plan of safe care” for the newborns after they leave the hospital.
Reuters found that no more than nine states and the District of Columbia appear to follow the law. Even so, no state had lost federal funding from failing to abide by the provision. More than 27,000 newborns in the United States were diagnosed with drug withdrawal syndrome in 2013 – five times the number diagnosed with the condition in 2003.
"Reuters' groundbreaking report on the condition of children born with opioid dependencies should be a call to action for all members of Congress," Casey said in a separate statement.
Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Center for Children's Justice, a Pennsylvania non-profit advocacy group, supported Casey's action.
"By GAO and Congress saying we want states to tangibly tell us what they are doing, it's going to force them to really look at it," Palm said. "It just feels like we're about to get a whole lot more motivated about these babies and their families."
Mark Weber, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees compliance with the law, said the agency will "work with the GAO when an inquiry is made."
The Reuters investigation, “Helpless & Hooked,” can be found at http://reut.rs/1NSc7uC
(Edited by Blake Morrison)