Source: Standard-Times (MA)
Pubdate: Sun, 26 Apr 1998
Author:  Arlene Levinson, Associated Press writer


EASLEY, S.C.  Late in the afternoon of Feb. 5, 1992, the police chief, a detective and two social workers entered the maternity ward of Easley Baptist Medical Center and took custody of 3-day-old Tevin Dashuan Whitner.

Not finding the infant's mother, they left a notice on her hospital bed.

The next morning, police came back, arrested Cornelia Whitner and led her away handcuffed and weeping. She had smoked crack cocaine before going into labor and the drug was found in her newborn's urine. To authorities this was child neglect.

Six years later, dimple-cheeked Tevin is a healthy, lively kindergartner who loves his books and his bicycle. He calls a great-aunt "Mama."

His real mother is serving an eight-year prison sentence in the only state that treats drug addiction during pregnancy as child neglect and imprisons the new mothers.

Efforts to do this in about 30 other states have been beaten back in the courts and in state legislatures. But in a 3-2 ruling last fall, the South Carolina Supreme Court for a second time upheld Ms. Whitner's conviction and said child abuse laws also apply to a viable fetus. It's the highest court anywhere to read the law that way.

Ms. Whitner's lawyers plan this week to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her case and those of two other women caught in the same snare.

The cases highlight a painful dilemma: Are women who use illegal drugs during pregnancy addicts who need treatment or criminals who belong in prison?

Nationwide, about 70,000 pregnant women annually are cocaine users, according to a federal survey. South Carolina estimates as many as 3,200 cocaine users give birth in their state every year.

South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon and the state's high court have "made up a new crime that the legislature never intended, and every medical group opposes, and that these women could not have known," said Ms. Whitner's lead attorney, Lynn Paltrow of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.

Ms. Whitner's conviction also challenges the 25-year-old Roe vs. Wade ruling that a woman's privacy includes her actions during pregnancy. Abortion opponents, however, take small comfort from the case.

April Holley of the anti-abortion National Right to Life Committee in Washington said threatening pregnant addicts with prison could encourage them to have abortions. "Our goal as a society," she said, "should be to help the mother and the child."

Those who see their job as helping mothers and children say what South Carolina is doing will hurt more than help. "All of us want to do everything in our power to salvage a fetus," said Dr. Nelson Weston, president of the South Carolina Medical Association, which opposes the state's policy. "But if the mother is addicted to cocaine, she's the one who needs treatment ... not prison."

Attorney General Condon says every viable fetus is "a fellow South Carolinian." As a former prosecutor in Charleston, he had pregnant and postpartum addicts arrested. "In our state, the rights of the fetus do not come from the mother, they come from God," Condon said. In fact, he also advocates legal curbs on drinking and smoking during pregnancy.

Some critics protest that the state's policy targets poor black women. Like Ms. Whitner, nearly all of the more than 40 addicts prosecuted since 1989 under South Carolina's child abuse law, are black. Ms. Whitner is not ready to blame bigotry for her predicament.

"It's a drug problem. I just don't think I deserve prison," she said by telephone from Leath Correctional Institution in Greenwood, about 60 miles southeast of Easley.

As for the U.S. Supreme Court, she said, "I just want them to understand this is a sickness."

In a series of phone calls  the prison bans face-to-face interviews  she spoke in a soft voice of wanting to get a house and a job and finish raising the three sons she hardly knows.

When she was born 34 years ago with a diamond-shaped patch of white on her brown forehead and hair, the family thought it might be a sign, "like she was going to be special, a gift from God," her oldest sister, Pansy Harris, said.

She was the last of six children born to Margaret Whitner, a chambermaid. Mrs. Whitner was sweet-natured but strict, kept a Bible in the house and reins on her children. After her husband left, there were other men, but she raised the children alone. Cornelia barely knew her father.

As a girl, Cornelia Whitner dreamed of becoming a nurse. She liked to sing and run. Her playmates were cousins in her warm, extended family.

One morning, the children heard a thump when their mother fell out of bed. Cornelia ran next door to call an ambulance, but help came too late. Margaret Whitner was dead at 42 of a worn-out heart.

Cornelia was 14 years old.

"That was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I felt like I had nobody," Ms. Whitner said. "That's when I started smoking weed and drinking beer and stuff. Ain't nobody like your mom."

With a sister and brother, she moved in with Miss Harris, whose stringent rules could not stop Cornelia's slide. "All the preaching and all the talking and all the upkeeping I tried to put on her didn't help," said Miss Harris, 43.

By 16, Ms. Whitner was a mother. She quit school and moved out on her own, drifting aimlessly from town to city, living on the margins of the state's prospering and scenic northwestern wedge. She was still smoking marijuana and drinking, and sometimes, she snorted cocaine.

Terrell, her firstborn, remembers her with love.

"Whenever she wasn't smoking, or doing, like, the bad stuff, we like played together, like tickle each other," said the lanky 17-year-old who inherited his mother's patch of white in his ink-black hair. He attends Seneca High School, his mother's school until she left in 9th grade, the year he was born.

He also remembers hunger. "We went without food for, like, a few days," Terrell said. "I would find something to eat. I can make a sandwich with ketchup."

After Leroy, her second child, was born in 1989, Ms. Whitner moved them all to Easley, a growing town of 20,000 where the old South is giving way to traffic jams and glittering shopping centers. The Whitners settled into a neighborhood of tumbledown houses near the railroad tracks.

There, Ms. Whitner met crack cocaine and "my life just fell apart."

At a boyfriend's house she found a party going on. "I'm a curious person, and they were smoking on this little pipe."

Former neighbor Maurice Grissom recalled the woman in the small brick house, her white streak of hair and terrible craving. "She was a very nice lady. She tried to get off that stuff," Grissom said. "She said she tried to get help for it, but nobody would help her." She stole cigarettes and food and jewelry to sell for crack. She also sold her body. "I never did that too much," she said. Never stood on a corner, but went to men she knew, she said. "I tried to keep a little bit of pride about myself."

Welfare and a boyfriend kept her going for a time. She took stabs at legitimate work. Food service. Motel maid. A factory job making plastic paid the best, more than $7 an hour. "But I couldn't even keep that, because of crack," she said.

Often she left her children with relatives and disappeared.

One night in April 1991, her Aunt Mary Brown called police in Central, about 13 miles from Easley. It was two days since Ms. Whitner had left 10-year-old Terrell with the aunt, and her toddler, Leroy, not yet 2, with the aunt's elderly neighbor.

The state took her children away, placed them with family members, and charged her with neglecting Leroy.

A week before Christmas 1991, heavy with her third pregnancy, Ms. Whitner stood before Judge Eppes at the Pickens County Courthouse and pleaded guilty.

Eppes likes to give people a chance. He sentenced Ms. Whitner to probation, with conditions. She had to stay away from drugs and alcohol and stay out of trouble with the law. Violating these terms would mean 10 years in prison.

Ms. Whitner says she would have liked help for her drug problem. But in Pickens County where she lived, little help was available for penniless, pregnant addicts. A single county program offered counseling at night but no transportation or child care. Some help was also available outside the county, but that could mean a waiting list.

Nevertheless, prosecutors in a few South Carolina counties, including Pickens, were getting tough with pregnant addicts. They started ordering the arrests of women whose newborns tested positive for drugs, charging the mothers with neglect. If they got help, charges would be dropped.

Joe Watson, then the prosecutor for Pickens and Greenville counties and now a circuit court judge, says his policy amounted to "putting the heavy hammer over the mother's head" to force her to get help. "Our goal has never been to put any of these mothers in jail."

Cornelia Whitner knew nothing of goals. She was scared and so fearful of arrest she shied away from the county health clinic offering pre-natal care.

Her fears were about to come true.

Tevin was born on Feb. 2, 1992 with the family blaze of white on his head. His mother held him just once before a nurse told her he had tested positive for cocaine.

She bolted. "That look on her face told me that the police was coming right then," Ms. Whitner said. "I panicked."

Returning to the hospital the next day, she found police waiting.

Two months later she again faced Judge Eppes.

"Is this a crack baby?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," she said.

"Why wouldn't you just take a pistol and put it in your mouth and blow your head off?" he said. "You wouldn't do that, would you?"

The public defender said Ms. Whitner wanted drug treatment.

Eppes, a judge for four decades, was alarmed at the rising use of drugs by women who came before him. A previous case had prompted him to say, "I was tired of having these bastard crack babies."

He told Ms. Whitner's lawyer, "I think I'll just let her go to jail."

Ms. Whitner got help from C. Rauch Wise, a Greenwood lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina. After more than 19 months in prison, she was freed by a judge who said child abuse could not apply to a fetus; she had pleaded guilty to a law that did not exist.

While out of prison, Ms. Whitner made a feeble attempt to reunite with her children, only to resume an addict's life of theft and drugs.

Meanwhile, Travis Medlock, then state attorney general, appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court, starting a four-year effort to get Ms. Whitner back in prison. The state won its case, and in January she was once again behind prison walls.

Today, South Carolina offers pregnant addicts more help. A former Greenville and Pickens assistant prosecutor, Catherine Christophillis, is now state director of drug prosecutions and has developed guidelines to marshal social services, medical help and counseling for pregnant drug abusers. Only those who don't cooperate risk prosecution.

All this help came too late for Cornelia Whitner. In her prison mug shot, her dark hair is tied back and braided. A fringe of bangs conceals her distinctive blaze of white. The fathers of her children are not in her life. Her children don't visit, but she talks to them on the phone.

The other night she spoke to Tevin, who was cleaning his tank of goldfish. "He said he miss me." Unless her conviction is overturned or she gets parole, Ms. Whitner will leave prison on March 9, 2001. Tevin will be 9 years old.