This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute, with support from the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice Journalism Scholarship.
At around midnight on November 13, Tonya Martin slipped out into the yard that separated her trailer from the one in which her grandparents live on a lot in the eastern hills of Tennessee. Just two months earlier, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department arrested Martin after she gave birth to a son. Her crime: delivering a child at Sweetwater Hospital with drugs—some kind of opioid—in his system.
Martin couldn’t shake her addiction or the depression that plagued her. The 34-year-old mother gave up the newborn for adoption. Not long after, Martin’s boyfriend found her dangling from the clothesline pole in her grandmother’s yard. He tried to resuscitate her, but it was too late.
Martin didn’t leave a note.
“That’s kind of the way the troubles of life choked her,” said her cousin, the Rev. Vernon Webb, 66, who led the funeral service in Tellico Plains, Tennessee. Webb said that 150 people came to Martin’s funeral in the poor, tiny rural town (population: 894). Ten years earlier, she had given birth to a stillborn boy, Xavier, and the anniversary was approaching. “That kind of burned down on her mind,” Webb said.
Many states have laws about parental drug use, and government agencies are responsible for protecting children from parents who are neglectful or abusive. But Tennessee’s law, passed in April, is different: it handcuffs new mothers upon delivery.
At least nine women in Tennessee have been arrested since the law went into effect. They are the examples, the cautionary tales: six in the city, three in the country, five black, four white, all poor.
The new law amends a Tennessee criminal-code section so that women may be charged with assault for illegal behavior while pregnant. It threatens up to fifteen years in prison “for the illegal use of a narcotic drug…while pregnant.” Prosecutors say that a woman’s enrollment in drug treatment could serve as a defense in court—but, in a cruel Catch-22, drug-addicted poor women often can’t get treatment, even when they desperately want it.
The law is not only incarcerating a handful of new mothers but affecting many more women, as evidenced by months of interviews with women, doctors and health workers. Pregnant women are diving underground in an effort to avoid the fate they’ve seen in mug shots on the local news. They are avoiding prenatal care—and when they do get it, they are switching hospitals at the last minute, leaving the state, or giving birth outside of hospitals in the hope of avoiding prosecution and keeping their children. Tennessee’s maintenance-treatment options for poor women were already scarce, so women who want help are finding little, if any, help. Some are detoxing alone, against the strong recommendations of doctors. Even when women try to get treatment, the state is still taking their children.