30-year-old Melissa Lee Jones is currently behind bars in the St. Joseph County Jail, having been convicted of First Degree Child Abuse. Ultimately she is assigned to serve out her time at Huron Valley Complex, a women’s prison, where there are a number of people incarcerated for exactly the same reason. But what is interesting about Melissa’s case, is that she never laid a hand on the child. So how did she end up in prison, a convicted child abuser? Believe it or not, the story is still evolving…
In January of 2015, Jones gave birth to a baby boy, and abandoned him at Sturgis Hospital. He was weak and underweight. But most importantly, from the perspective of the prosecutor, is the fact that he had drugs in his system. The only way a newborn has drugs in its bloodstream is if it’s mother was using drugs during the pregnancy.
In the somewhat controversial case that followed, St. Joseph County Prosecutor John McDonough charged Jones with First Degree Child Abuse. Jones accepted a plea deal, and pled guilty to the charge. But that’s not the end of the story.
Jones has filed an appeal on the grounds that Michigan law does not support the initial charges against her, which makes the entire conviction invalid. Under Michigan law, First Degree Child Abuse is defined as “knowingly or intentionally causing serious physical or serious mental harm to a child.” However, the law does not define a fetus as a child.
When addressing the Judge about her situation at the sentencing last year, Jones said, “my addiction was strong – a lot stronger than I thought it was, but I never intended to hurt my son.” She admitted that she had used drugs during her pregnancy. In fact, she admitted to using them as recently as five days before her baby was born.
But while her intentions may affect the Appeal Court’s decision in some way, the true deciding factor is whether or not the term “child” also extends to include “fetus.” What makes this such a big deal, both on a state level and from a national perspective, is that this decision could affect pregnant mothers in the future. Whatever the decision is, it will likely affect the outcome of future cases dealing with pregnant women who use drugs.
It is standard procedure in Michigan for hospitals to test newborns for any traces of drugs. In cases where a baby receives a positive result, CPS is notified and an investigation is opened into the mother. If CPS is able to prove that the mother used drugs during the pregnancy, CPS typically removes the child from the custody of the mother, and depending on the severity of the situation, petitions for termination of the parent’s rights.
We will be watching the outcome of this case closely, and will keep you updated on all of the changes to come, and their legal implications for Michigan mothers.