A Pennsylvania woman was charged last week with criminal homicide in the death of her 11-week-old son after an autopsy indicated he died from ingesting a combination of drugs in her breast milk.
During her pregnancy, the woman, Samantha Jones, 30, was prescribed methadone because of an addiction to painkillers.
She told police that she had breastfed her son since he was born, which is generally recommended, including for women who are taking methadone to treat opioid addiction. Medical experts believe the many benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the effects of the tiny amount of methadone that enters the breast milk.
Three days before her son’s death, Jones began feeding her son formula, she said, because she didn’t think he was getting enough milk. She told police that around 3 a.m. on April 2, she tried to breastfeed him but wasn’t sure if he latched onto her breast. Around 6 a.m., her husband said he made the baby a bottle of formula, which Jones fed him before she fell asleep. An hour later, Jones called 911 after finding her infant son with bloody mucus coming out of his nose.
He was transferred to a hospital in cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead.
An autopsy determined that he died from a combination of methadone, amphetamine and methamphetamine transmitted through Jones’ breast milk, according to the charging documents from the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office.
Jones is incarcerated, with bail set at $3 million cash. Kristin McElroy, the deputy district attorney assigned to the case, said in a statement that Jones could face murder charges that carry a mandatory life sentence.
As the opioid crisis has torn through the country, advocates say there have been hundreds of cases of women arrested for allegedly harming their unborn or young children with drug use. A stark divide exists between medical professionals, who argue that addiction should be treated as a public health issue, and state lawmakers, many of whom have adopted tough-on-crime measures that put mothers behind bars.
In Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Wolf (D) has declared opioid and heroin use an emergency disaster, an estimated 2 percent of babies are exposed to prescribed or illegal opioids in utero. In 2017 a Pennsylvania woman, Kasey Dischman, 31, was charged with aggravated assault against an unborn child after she overdosed on heroin while seven months pregnant, forcing an emergency cesarean section. The charge was dropped because, under state law, women may not be charged with aggravated assault against their unborn children.
Cases of women being accused of hurting their babies with tainted breast milk are relatively rare, and the science is not always clear cut.
Poj Lysouvakon, M.D., the pediatric medical director of the mother-baby unit at the University of Chicago Medical Center, cautioned that the presence of drugs in an infant’s bloodstream does not mean it was the cause of death.
“There is not a lot of research about the potential adverse effects that the small amounts of illicit drugs found in breast milk may have on babies,” he said. “It may have been a factor, but is it the only cause? Without knowing the baby’s birth history, it’s hard to say.”
He noted that amphetamines are used as a treatment for some medical conditions, such as narcolepsy, and research has found few negative effects on nursing infants.
Louis Busico, the attorney representing Jones, said she did not intentionally hurt her baby and is struggling to cope behind bars.
“She suffered the worst loss any human being could suffer ― the loss of a child ― and now she is incarcerated because of that loss,” he said. “This woman absolutely adored and loved her little son. This is a horrific, unfathomable accident.”
He said he was awaiting a copy of the autopsy report to review the evidence showing that Jones’ breast milk killed the boy.
“I can’t speak to the quantitative analysis because I’m not entitled to the toxicology yet,” he said. “All I can see is that some coroner somewhere labeled this a homicide.”
He said he did not know of similar cases involving breastfeeding in Pennsylvania, though there have been a handful in other states. In 2006 a California woman, Amy Leanne Prien, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after her 3-month-old son died from a drug overdose that prosecutors alleged was caused by breast milk. In 2012, Maggie Jean Wortman was sentenced to six years in prison after her 6-week-old baby died from “methamphetamine toxicity” from breastfeeding, according to an autopsy.
In 2014, Iuni Moana Malo, 34, was charged with endangerment with a controlled substance for allegedly breastfeeding after using methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana.
Nancy Rosenbloom, the director of legal advocacy for the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, said that charges like the one Jones is facing are a misuse of the criminal justice system and could discourage other women on methadone from breastfeeding, even though medical experts recommend it.
“People make assumptions based on myths and not based on science,” she said. “The fact that charges like this continue to be brought against breastfeeding mothers reflects the stigma that is placed on mothers who use any amount of any drugs.”
“If someone has a substance use disorder, they should be offered treatment, not have criminal charges thrown at them,” she added.