By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, every 25 minutes a baby is born in the United States suffering from opioid withdrawal. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has not been able to escape this problem.
Following an impassioned Facebook post by EBCI tribal member Mara Nelson, who discussed this issue last week, Big Cove Rep. Teresa McCoy thought it was time to bring community members and officials together for a frank discussion to find solutions.
Rep. McCoy organized a public forum which was held in the Cherokee Tribal Council chambers on the afternoon of Tuesday, Jan. 17. The event, attended by around 30 people, drew health officials, tribal leaders, and community members – some of which are caring for children born to mothers suffering from drug addiction.
“I think we had a very positive meeting on a situation that concerns every member of the Tribe and that is the safety, health, and welfare of our infants,” Rep. McCoy said after the meeting. “What we’re trying to do here is reduce or wipe out addiction completely when it comes to children being born addicted, and we also are going to look into getting some help and assistance to the mother, the grandparents, and everyone else.”
At the beginning of the meeting, a packet of information was distributed which included a possible amendment to Cherokee Code addressing the issue of babies born addicted to drugs. The amendment, written by Tribal Council Attorney Carolyn West, proposed that a mother be charged with Assault on a Child (Class A penalty) “if her child is born addicted or harmed by the narcotic drug”.
After discussions, it was decided to put it on the back-burner.
Rep. McCoy noted, “The law that we discussed today will be held. It is a last-ditch effort if nothing else works, but from what I am hearing and seeing today, we have a long-term plan in the start, and I am very grateful to the people that came today.”
Following the meeting, Mara Nelson, who brought the issue to the forefront with her Facebook post, commented, “I think that we had a really good turnout, and it shows that our community is really concerned about the problem that we’re having and we want something done. This was a start. They’ve already scheduled another meeting to keep things going so I’m really excited about it.”
Nelson’s daughter, Taylor, who serves as the chairperson for the Junaluska Leadership Council, served as the chair for Tuesday’s meeting. “A lot of people are really concerned with this problem and people are tired of it. So, finally people are realizing that we’re the voice of our community and those little babies because they don’t have it. Whether it’s a long process or it’s slow, we can do it. With the faith that we have right now, and if it keeps growing, we can do it in no time.”
During the meeting itself, numerous community members and tribal officials spoke on the issue.
Sunshine Parker, EBCI Public Health and Human Services, referenced a two-year Tennessee law (now gone due to a sunset clause) dealing with the issue that didn’t work. “Mothers stopped going to get any care at all…some pre-natal care is better than no pre-natal care.”
She said a total of 43 drug-exposed babies have been through the EBCI Family Safety Program in the first year of the program’s existence. “I think the punishment should be less of the focus and the prevention should be the focus. Simple punishment is not going to keep this from happening.”
Tina Saunooke, EBCI Safe Babies Program community coordinator, told of four mothers they have worked with recently who were successful in addiction treatment. “I have concerns if we just lock up moms. Punitive means is a means, but I don’t think it’s the best means.”
Hannah Smith, EBCI Attorney General’s Office, said a results-based accountability method would be best for the community in addressing the problem as a whole, together. “There is hope. We’ve never had an all-out, tribal-wide commitment to one goal before.”