An Alabama mother battling chronic back pain faces crime charges of restocking her prescription while pregnant – one case her lawyers say tests the limits of legal protection for women in medical care.
Kim Blalock had back problems before she was pregnant. She suffered from arthritis and degenerative disc disease. Surgical complications and a car accident the year before her pregnancy made her pain worse.
Blalock, a married mother of six who stays at home, treated her condition under the care of a local orthopedic surgeon. He prescribed hydrocodone, one of the most commonly used drugs for patients with chronic pain. It enabled the 36-year-old to keep up with her young children and two older teenagers.
“There are days when I can’t get up,” says Blalock, who lives in Florence in northern Alabama. “There are days when I’m fine and there are days when I am just terrible. It’s debilitating. I am in severe pain and mobility, and I have two small children (and older ones) who need me all day. “
Four years after starting hydrocodone, Blalock became pregnant with her youngest son and stopped her medication in early 2020. “It was a very tough, painful, long pregnancy,” said Blalock.
The pain was getting excruciating in the six weeks leading up to her due date, so she refilled her prescription. After Blalock gave birth, she told her obstetrician about the hydrocodone, according to a letter from her lawyers to the Lauderdale County authorities. North Alabama Medical Center staff tested her newborn for opiates and it came back positive.
That sparked a brief investigation by Human Resources, which closed the case after Blalock showed them the prescription bottle and allowed a clerk to count the pills.
But that didn’t satisfy the Florence Police Department or the Lauderdale County District Attorney’s office, who investigated Blalock and charged her with prescription fraud for failing to tell her orthopedic surgeon that she was pregnant.
Most of the time when newborn babies in Alabama test positive for drugs, authorities prosecute mothers for chemical exposure – a law written to protect children from exposure to fumes from home meth labs. The Alabama Supreme Court later upheld the dangerous chemical convictions of two mothers who used drugs during pregnancy, a broad interpretation of the law that opened the door to hundreds of cases.
In 2016, after an investigation by ProPublica and AL.com, Alabama lawmakers changed the law to protect mothers who were taking medication prescribed by doctors. Dana Sussman, an attorney with National Advocates for Pregnant Women, said the bill made it clear that state leaders did not want prosecution of mothers with legal prescriptions.
Alabama authorities have prosecuted hundreds of women for drug use while pregnant over the past decade, but this could be the first case on charges of fraud because a woman allegedly failed to tell her doctor about pregnancy, Sussman said .
Prescription fraud cases usually occur when a person uses a false identity or counterfeit to get hold of controlled substances. Emma Roth, an attorney with the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, who represents Blalock, said Lauderdale County officials are bringing prescription fraud charges to circumvent the exception in the chemicals law.
“It seems to us that in this way the state and the prosecution want to circumvent the actions of the legislature,” said Roth. “The legislator has excluded women from statutory ordinances under the Chemical Hazard Act. This is a way for the public prosecutor to get around that. “
Roth and Blalock’s other lawyers have moved to drop the charges. Lawyers at National Advocates for Pregnant Women regularly handle criminal cases from across the country involving pregnant women. If Blalock is convicted, it means, Sussman said, that any woman in Alabama could be arrested if she doesn’t tell her doctor she’s pregnant before refilling a prescription or getting a prescription – regardless of whether or not asked Not.
Lauderdale County’s District Attorney Chris Connolly said his office was not trying to circumvent the state’s ban on bringing chemical hazard charges against women using legitimate prescriptions. Although most of his previous prescription fraud proceedings involved doctor shopping – where patients visit multiple vendors for multiple prescriptions – he said this case fills the bill.
“It is alleged that the defendant received hydrocodone from a doctor while she was pregnant without telling the doctor she was pregnant,” Connolly said. “If the defendant had disclosed her pregnancy, the doctor would have weaned her from hydrocodone.”
The doctor did not respond to requests for comment. Blalock said her doctor and sisters never asked about pregnancy. Because of the pandemic, she did not have a personal appointment.
Connolly said Blalock was responsible for informing their doctors. Although Blalock said she told her obstetrician about the pain pills, Connolly said she didn’t. Newborns exposed to hydrocodone during pregnancy can experience withdrawal symptoms after birth, which can be treated with medication in neonatal intensive care units. While the condition is not life threatening, it can cause irritability, excessive crying, poor nutrition, and tremors.
In recent years, the number of babies being treated for neonatal abstinence syndrome has increased in Alabama and across the country. Yellowhammer state authorities have responded by imposing tougher sentences on mothers who use illegal drugs while pregnant. Connolly said Blalock’s doctors would have changed her treatment if they knew she was pregnant.
“It is further alleged that if she had told her gynecologist that she was taking hydrocodone, she would have been instructed to stop taking the medication while pregnant,” Connolly said.
Her newborn baby showed no signs of drug withdrawal after birth and was discharged after four days of treatment for jaundice – a common condition that usually resolves after treatment with ultraviolet light. Her son was healthy, but Blalock was struggling.
Less than two months after the birth, police officers rushed to Blalock’s house while she and her husband were out of town. Her two teenagers were at home and said at least seven armed police officers came in and asked questions about their whereabouts. The teenagers were so shaken that they stayed with their grandparents.
“The incident with the police made Ms. Blalock and her sons scared, confused and unsafe,” said Roth.
A Florence Police Public Information Officer declined to answer questions about the raid as the investigation is pending.
As the investigation dragged on, Blalock said her neighbors saw the police come and go from their home and read about their arrest in the newspaper.
“What I found really tragic about this story was that she was afraid of spending the money she had saved on Christmas gifts in case she needed it on bail,” said Roth.
Roth has been representing Blalock for months, saying her client has a close bond with her children.
“I was so impressed with her and the way she handled her baby,” said Roth. “But she also experiences incredible levels of stress and anxiety. It was really devastating for her and she just wants a degree. “
Blalock’s child is a healthy eight month old child. Blalock said he had never been sick and was almost crawling. But while she should have spent the past few months enjoying and connecting with her new baby, she has instead wrestled with fear and pain. She has stopped her medication until her case is resolved and her back problems have become unbearable.
Blalock said she had no idea filling out her pain prescription could get her in such trouble.
“If I had known what I know now, I’d rather be in bed with pain my entire pregnancy than take a pill,” said Blalock. “I thought it was okay. I didn’t think it was a big deal. My son is perfectly fine. “
Blalock wants to warn other women that this could happen to them.
“I thought if a doctor writes you a prescription you can take it,” said Blalock. “If not, there must be posters everywhere in the doctor’s office saying: If you are pregnant and the doctor prescribes something for you, you may still not be able to take it.”