ScienceDirect  |  September 4, 2021

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As rates of substance use have increased in the United States, rates of substance-involved pregnancies have also been on the rise, inspiring new civil policies designed to punish pregnant and parenting individuals who engage in substance use or are living with an untreated substance use disorder. Proponents of punitive civil policies argue that such policies will deter substance use behaviors and/or that substance use during pregnancy deserves punishment for harming the fetus. Current scientific evidence invalidates both claims, offering compelling evidence that punitive civil policies often worsen the harms of substance use for both parent and child. In this commentary, we review this evidence and explain how punitive policies that threaten child removal and the termination of parental rights exacerbate the very problems they are ostensibly designed to reduce. Rather than coercive and punitive responses, families affected by substance use need greater access to affordable, evidence-based treatment as well as services that address the structural and relational concerns underlying substance use. Above all, responses to perinatal substance use in both policy and practice should prioritize keeping families together.

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