If a mother uses illegal drugs while pregnant, can this constitute child abuse?

The answer is “Yes”.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently decided a case called In Re: L.B. The Superior Court noted that under the Child Protective Services Law in Pennsylvania (the “CPSL”), an embryo or fetus does not meet the definition of “child”. However if a pregnant mother uses illegal drugs which either (i) causes bodily injury to the child after birth or (ii) creates a reasonable likelihood of injury to the child after birth, this can constitute abuse of a child.

In other words, if a pregnant mother uses illegal drugs a court can later find that she was committing child abuse. 

It is important to note that a finding of “child abuse” under the CPSL is not, itself, a crime. However there are specific criminal offenses that could possibly apply (such as, for example, recklessly endangering another person). And, regardless, a finding of “Child Abuse” would result in the mother being included in the ChildLine Registry as a child abuser.

With the opiate problem in Pennsylvania continuing, we may see more new mothers charged with Child Abuse or related crimes in the future. And, if a pregnant mother consumes alcohol which results in injuries to a newborn, she may be similarly held accountable under the law.