Alicia Beltran, 28, was sent to a drug-treatment center despite insisting she was not using drugs.
Alicia Beltran cried with fear and disbelief when county sheriffs surrounded her home on July 18 and took her in handcuffs to a holding cell.
She was 14 weeks pregnant and thought she had done the right thing when, at a prenatal checkup, she described a pill addiction the previous year and said she had ended it on her own - something later verified by a urine test. But now an apparently skeptical doctor and a social worker accused her of endangering her unborn child because she had refused to accept their order to start on an anti-addiction drug.
Ms. Beltran, 28, was taken in shackles before a family court commissioner who, she says, brushed aside her pleas for a lawyer. To her astonishment, the court had already appointed a legal guardian for the fetus.
"I didn't know unborn children had lawyers," recalled Ms. Beltran, now six months pregnant, after returning to her home north of Milwaukee from a court-ordered 78-day stay at a drug treatment center. "I said, 'Where's my lawyer?' "
Under a Wisconsin law known as the "cocaine mom" act when it was adopted in 1998, child-welfare authorities can forcibly confine a pregnant woman who uses illegal drugs or alcohol "to a severe degree," and who refuses to accept treatment.
Now, with Ms. Beltran's detention as Exhibit A, that law is being challenged as unconstitutional in a federal suit filed this month
, the first in federal court to challenge this kind of fetal protection law. Its opponents are hoping to set an important precedent in the continuing tug of war over the rights of pregnant women and legal status of the unborn.
Wisconsin is one of four states, along with Minnesota, Oklahoma and South Dakota, with laws specifically granting authorities the power to confine pregnant women for substance abuse. But many other states use civil-confinement, child-protection or assorted criminal laws to force women into treatment programs or punish them for taking drugs.