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Tammy Loertscher had no idea that seeking a pregnancy test would ultimately put her in jail. That, though, is what happened last summer to the blond 29-year-old nursing aide from Medford, Wisconsin, who, after confirming her pregnancy at a local health clinic, admitted to her doctor that she’d recently stopped using methamphetamines and pot. According to a sworn statement she later filed in a civil suit, Loertscher had been struggling for more than a decade with a severe thyroid condition that, if untreated, left her lethargic and depressed. In February 2014, she quit her job during a bout of depression, which meant she could no longer afford the expensive blood tests doctors required to continue to prescribe her medication. To manage her worsening symptoms, she’d briefly self-medicated with meth and the occasional hit of weed to soothe her anxiety and give her some energy. It helped for a while, she says, “but ultimately the depression would take over and it just became a big cycle.”
Last July, Loertscher, suspecting she was pregnant by her boyfriend, did what to many people would seem like the right thing to do. Still deeply depressed and exhausted, she took herself to a hospital looking for help. A urine test confirmed that she was pregnant but also showed traces of the drugs. So Loertscher told the doctor everything. “I was worried for [the baby’s] health, so I thought if I was honest, they would help me, and help him,” she says. “The baby was my priority.”
What happened next shocked Loertscher to such an extent “I still can’t believe it happened,” she says. Insisting she get drug treatment, which Loertscher refused on the grounds that she was now clean, the hospital then notified county officials, who filed a petition to compel her into treatment maintaining that she was endangering the health of her unborn child. (The hospital declined to comment.) At that moment, Loertscher became the latest unwitting target of Wisconsin’s punitive “cocaine mom” statute, which gives state officials the power to detain, arrest or otherwise punish pregnant women for substance use. Though she was not afforded legal representation, Loertscher’s 14-week-old fetus was given a lawyer, known as a guardian ad litem. This court-appointed official represented the fetus’s interests during two hearings that resulted in Loertscher being incarcerated for refusing to enter drug treatment. “It seemed so crazy — I was like, ‘I’m not using anymore because I don’t want to hurt my child!’ ” she recalls. Nonetheless, she spent 18 days in jail — including 24 hours in solitary confinement, according to her sworn statement. She says she was given no prenatal care. At one point, she alleges, a guard even threatened to taser her after she refused to submit to a urine test. Finally, she found a public defender who negotiated her release.
“I was so ignorant,” says Loertscher, whose claims are part of a federal civil rights lawsuit she filed in January, alleging that Wisconsin’s cocaine-mom law is unconstitutional and violated her civil liberties. “I thought I had rights. But it turned out my baby had more constitutional rights than I did.”
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