She Used Drugs While Pregnant. Should She Be in Prison?
Adora Perez was 29 years old and 37 weeks pregnant when she woke up to deep cramps on the evening of December 30, 2017. She had been napping at her grandfather’s when the pain started. Around 10 p.m., her boyfriend and her teenage daughter drove Adora the five minutes to Adventist Health Center in their hometown of Hanford, California, and helped her past the parking-lot palm trees and through the sliding-glass doors of the white stucco building, where Adora had given birth several times before. Inside, the nurses recognized her immediately.
Though Adora had a history of gestational diabetes and preeclampsia, the hospital staff, she remembers, focused on another piece of her medical history. Adora had used drugs during previous pregnancies, and she disclosed that she had used drugs during this one, too. “When I got there, they already knew me, so they already know I’m going to be dirty,” Adora says, explaining she had been trying to detox at her grandfather’s house.
At the hospital, Adora was quickly hooked up to a fetal-heart-rate monitor, which showed no activity. Two hours later, after a painful, vacuum-assisted labor, Adora’s son was stillborn. A coroner’s report would later find that her placenta had separated from her womb, cutting off the flow of oxygen to the fetus, and attributed this to “maternal methamphetamine abuse.” At first, Adora remembers, the nurses were kind, telling Adora to take her time holding her son, whom she named Hades. Her mother and aunt rushed into the hospital to meet Hades while he was still warm, and her teenage daughter declared that her little brother had inherited her nose.
But at some point that night, Adora recalls, hospital staff sedated her and took Hades away to test his body for meth. What she didn’t know was that while she was naming and grieving her stillborn son, hospital staff were talking to law enforcement and Child Protective Services. When she woke to find Hades gone, Adora began sobbing at this second loss of her son. “I was blaming myself,” she says, “for going to sleep.”
Resting in her hospital bed the next day, discharge papers in hand, Adora was not surprised when a police detective arrived. Her boyfriend had been in and out of court and jail and warned Adora that police might arrest her for using drugs during her pregnancy. He was right. The officer escorted Adora out of the maternity ward, back through the hospital’s sliding-glass doors and palm-tree-lined parking lot, and three minutes down the road to Kings County Jail. There, barely two days postpartum, her belly aching and her breasts sore with milk her son would never drink, Adora was booked into custody on suspicion of second-degree murder. Another two days later, she was standing in front of a judge.
Six months later, on June 15, 2018, Adora Perez, then 30 years old, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 11 years in state prison for killing a human being by using meth during her pregnancy. Her case could have serious implications for the future of reproductive freedom, especially if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade next year.
Prosecutors in many states are increasingly sending people to prison for failing to sufficiently protect their fetus. Right now, those cases are largely restricted to punishing mothers who use illegal drugs, but reproductive-health advocates argue that they lay the groundwork for prosecuting parents who jaywalk or drink wine or even have abortions. As Adora’s case continues to play out, the Kings County district attorney’s office maintains an interpretation of the law that could shape the future of not only stillbirth cases but the rights of all people who can and do become pregnant.
Adora was a toddler when she went to live with her grandparents and her aunt in the tiny town of Laton, California. Her parents were using drugs at the time, and when her little sister died from sudden-infant-death syndrome, her mother left town to escape her grief. “After she lost Adora’s sister, she made a different turn in her life,” Adora’s aunt, Sabrina Perez, tells me. “I guess that was her way of dealing with losing her kid.” Although Adora’s maternal grandparents were also using drugs, they took in Adora and her two brothers and got clean shortly thereafter. A few years later, Sabrina, who also struggled with addiction, adopted Adora’s two younger sisters. Adora started kindergarten, the memories of her parents’ drug use quickly fading until she barely recalled them. Eventually, the family moved to the nearby town of Hanford.
Not long after the move, Adora recalls, cousins started to touch her inappropriately, and a family friend raped her when she was 9. “I always felt dirty,” she says, but she didn’t know how to talk about it. By junior high, she had started smoking weed. She realized that she liked the way it made her feel, the way it helped her forget. When she found out she was pregnant at age 14, she never thought about terminating. She had grown up in church, and her family didn’t believe in abortion; she transferred to a high school for pregnant girls before giving birth to her eldest daughter. Then, two years later, her eldest son. Her junior year, now the mother of a newborn and a 2-year-old, she dropped out. At 16, meth helped her forget better than weed ever had.
It’s unclear if Adora had ever tried to access birth control, but it may not have been much of an option for her. In 2003, a year after Adora gave birth to her first child, a consulting firm found that only 43 percent of California middle schools and 85 percent of high schools that were surveyed provided information on contraception, compared to about 88 and 99 percent that taught about abstinence. The firm went on to report that “teen birth rates for California are higher than those for every other Western democracy in the world.” In 2005, Kings County had the highest teen birth rate of any county in California. Jennifer Chou of the ACLU of Northern California, whose work focuses on access to reproductive health care in the Central Valley, says providers are few and far between in towns like Hanford. Most women end up driving to Fresno for contraception and other care — if they have access to a vehicle and time for the 45-minute drive.
Several years later, when she was 21, Adora met Louis DiCostanzo, who would become the father of her seven youngest children and Hades. Adora was in her early 20s when she and Louis had their first son together. At the hospital, when the baby tested positive for marijuana, which was not yet legal in California, the state temporarily placed him with Adora’s grandparents. Adora regained custody of her son, but when she gave birth to Louis’s second child a year later, and this baby tested positive for meth, Child Protective Services took custody of all four of her children and placed them with Adora’s grandparents. That began a cycle that would continue through her next two pregnancies: Adora would give birth, the hospital would test her babies for drugs, CPS would call her grandparents, and her grandparents would step in to take care of the children.
When Adora delivered her seventh child, her grandparents were raising most of her children. “My Mom and Dad, they were just trying to sit there and grab all Adora’s kids,” Sabrina recalls. “It was too much.” Adora’s seventh child, her second daughter, went into CPS custody and remained there. Meanwhile, Adora started a drug-treatment program in hopes that she would be able to work the steps and regain custody of her children. She completed a three-month inpatient rehabilitation program and was making good progress in an outpatient program when she got a call from CPS that a family had adopted her daughter. “When they told her that, she just gave up,” Sabrina says. Although she didn’t have custody of any of her six older children, Adora could still visit them. This was the first child she truly lost contact with. “That’s when I really started using bad,” Adora explains. “It doesn’t take it away completely, but at least that little bit, it goes a long ways.” Where she had once smoked meth to forget about her childhood, Adora was now smoking for another reason: “the pain of having kids and losing them.”
She started using more and got pregnant again. Like her previous pregnancies, she tells me, her eighth pregnancy was a surprise. Adora’s uncle was able to adopt her eighth child, a friend of Sabrina’s adopted the ninth, and Adora’s ex-boyfriend got sober and took custody of his children, Adora’s two eldest. Although she didn’t have custody of any of them, she did see her six oldest children often — taking them to the playground and watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with her boys. When she found out in 2017 that she was pregnant again, she was excited but determined that it would be her last baby.
When she heard the news, Louis’s mother, Paula DiCostanzo, approached Adora with a proposal: She could give this baby to Louis’s sister. In exchange, Paula began driving Adora to Fresno for prenatal appointments, where eventually, when Adora was about five months along, she saw the fetus. “I wanted to keep my baby after that,” Adora remembers. She realized that if she could stay clean, she wouldn’t have to give up this child. “I really wanted to do it the right way and bring my baby home,” she says. And so she and Louis moved in with Sabrina, and Adora got clean for two months.
But one thing complicating her attempt to stay sober was her relationship with Louis, Sabrina says, who also used meth. She remembers that Louis was always very respectful around Adora’s family, but she had heard rumors that he was hitting Adora. She wasn’t sure what to believe until her boyfriend told her he had seen Louis dragging Adora from their house to his grandmother’s. Eventually, she couldn’t keep ignoring the long-sleeved shirts in the summertime and the bruises that peeked out from underneath. Sabrina said something to Adora, “but she kept going back to him.” Adora says she didn’t know how to leave. “He has a lot of issues too. And I think he took it out on me,” Adora says. But she believed “there had to be some good in him. I stayed with him and had so many kids with him.” Louis, for his part, told me that he regretted much of what happened between him and Adora, but that he didn’t regret his children.
Toward the end of those two months, when Adora and Louis were sober and living with Sabrina, Adora, who is of Mexican and Native American descent, received one of the assistance checks that her tribe, the Pima Tribe of Arizona, sent out quarterly. She floated the idea of using the money to rent her and Louis a room so they would be out of Sabrina’s hair, but Sabrina worried that if they left, Adora would fall victim to Louis’s influence and start using again. Adora tells me that not long after they moved out, Louis came home high and asked her if she wanted to buy some drugs. (Louis disputes much of this account of what happened during Adora’s last pregnancy, including doing drugs with her at the time.) She wanted to say no, and at first she did, but then she relapsed. A week later, she went into labor.
Adora’s case is but one of many in a long history of prosecution targeting pregnant people and the decisions they make. In a 2013 study, scholar Jeanne Flavin and National Advocates for Pregnant Women executive director and founder Lynn Paltrow identified 413 cases of arrests or forced interventions on pregnant women in the United States between 1973, the year Roe v. Wade was decided, and 2005. Of those 413 cases — which Flavin and Paltrow believe is still a substantial undercount — a majority involved low-income women and women of color like Adora.
“Overwhelmingly, and regardless of race, women in our study were economically disadvantaged, indicated by the fact that 71 percent qualified for indigent defense,” Flavin and Paltrow wrote. “Of the 368 women for whom information on race was available, 59 percent were women of color,” the vast majority Black women, who were nearly twice as likely to be reported to police by their health-care providers than white women.
Although a handful of these cases date back to the 1970s, it wasn’t until the late 1980s and early ’90s — at the height of the “crack epidemic” — that prosecutors really began focusing their attention on drug-using mothers. According to legal scholar Dorothy Roberts, the myth of the “crack baby” sprang largely from the insistence in America on policing Black women’s reproductive decisions. She traces that inclination to slavery, when “a pregnant slave woman’s body was subject to legal fiat” because “the fetus she was carrying already belonged to her master,” as she writes in Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty.
By the late ’80s, misinformation about the effects of cocaine on pregnancy dominated headlines — based on a misreading of a 1985 study of 23 cocaine-using pregnant women published in The New England Journal of Medicine. By the early ’90s, the author of the study had stepped forward to say that the children of the 23 mothers had properly developed and were healthy, telling the Washington Post, “As I study the problem more and more, I think the placenta does a better job of protecting the child than we do as a society.” Nevertheless, news stories calling children of drug-addicted mothers “a biological underclass” and suggesting they would grow up to become criminals unable to form human attachments dominated the airwaves and justified the “War on Drugs.” Eighty-four percent of the cases in Flavin and Paltrow’s study involved an allegation that the pregnant woman had used an illegal drug.
Paltrow says that in the ongoing process of updating her and Flavin’s report on pregnancy prosecution, she has observed a demographic shift. “One of the things that we know since 2005 is that the majority of women being arrested currently and disproportionately so are rural, low income, white women,” she says. Instead of “crack babies,” newsrooms now fear for the futures of “oxytots” — children born to opioid-using mothers. “It isn’t that racism has gone away,” says Paltrow. “It’s that the punitive mechanisms put into place on the backs of Black women will inevitably reach other people.”
Despite fears for the health of “meth babies,” researchers maintain that there are no birth defects that have been linked to meth use during pregnancy. In their overview of research into the effects of cocaine and amphetamine use during pregnancy, Mishka Terplan and Tricia Wright, both board-certified doctors in obstetrics, gynecology, and addiction medicine, explain that “no consistent teratological effects,” or birth defects, have been linked to in utero methamphetamine exposure. Although a longitudinal study on the effects of prenatal methamphetamine exposure indicates that meth is associated with fetal-growth restriction, it also reports that by the time those children reached age 3, there were no effects on their receptive and expressive language, gross motor skills, or mental development. In a letter in support of another woman’s case, Terplan and Wright explain that “pregnancy outcomes have far more to do with economic, social and environmental conditions” than anything one does while pregnant. As Caitlin Martin — an OB/GYN and addiction-medicine provider at Virginia Commonwealth University — explains, our understanding of drug use during pregnancy is limited because the research we have to date is all observational. “It’s almost impossible to do a randomized control trial for this,” she says, since you can’t tell one study subject to use illicit substances and another not to. As a result, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the “data on fetal consequences from direct substance exposure are more robust for alcohol and nicotine than for other substances,” like meth and opioids.
Lynn Paltrow puts it in starker terms: “I suspect that there are some places in this country, probably many places, where it’s easier to get methamphetamine than the safe and effective [abortion] medications misoprostol and mifepristone.” If methamphetamine caused stillbirth, Paltrow wonders, wouldn’t more pregnant women be using it to terminate pregnancies?
Adora appeared in Kings County Court two days after she was booked into jail. Without even a court-appointed lawyer at her side — her family had hoped to hire someone — she learned that the district attorney’s office had charged her with murder of a human fetus. She appeared in court eight times, represented by a court-appointed attorney after her family realized they couldn’t afford their own.
“At first, I was like, ‘No, they can’t. I don’t think they can keep me in here,’” Adora recalls. But then she started telling herself, “I deserve to be here because my son is gone.”
On March 26, 2018, instead of proceeding to trial on murder charges, District Attorney Keith Fagundes entered a second count of voluntary manslaughter as a plea bargain. Under California law, no one can commit manslaughter against a fetus. But, in pleading no contest to a charge of manslaughter, Adora could avoid the 15-to-life sentence of a murder charge and hope for three, six, or 11 years instead.
When Adora next called home, her dad, who was back in her life after attending a rehab program, told her that the court website said she had pleaded guilty. She was confused — she had only spoken to her attorney briefly before entering the courtroom and didn’t understand what it had meant when she answered “no contest,” at his direction, to one of the judge’s many questions. Her family decided they could no longer put off hiring a private attorney, who appeared at Adora’s next hearing and asked for the sentencing scheduled for that day to be postponed until June. In the meantime, she filed a motion to withdraw Adora’s guilty plea. It was not successful.
On the day of Adora’s sentencing, Judge Robert Burns allowed two witnesses to testify: Adora’s father, who explained that the rehab program he had attended four years prior had offered to help Adora get into a women’s program, and Paula DiCostanzo, Louis’s mother. Before the hearing, Paula had written a letter to Judge Burns and attached a copy of Hades’s five-month ultrasound. “From what I understand Adoroa [sic] has had seven children from my son Louis. The baby would have been number eight,” she wrote. “The eight baby — may he rest in peace was very devastating to me. This could have been prevented if she took my help.” Before signing her name, she added, “I don’t know if it’s possible for the courts to have her tubes tied if so please do it.”
Assistant District Attorney Philip Esbenshade, who was in court for the DA’s office that day, argued that “there could not be a more vulnerable victim” than a fetus. “Her continual use of methamphetamine, in my opinion, shows a selfish callousness which is a circumstance in aggravation. Absolute callousness.”
Then Judge Burns allowed Adora to speak. For the first time in six months of hearings, Adora was able to tell her own story. “I can admit that I’m an addict. And I didn’t mean to hurt my baby. And I’m not going to let my baby’s death be for nothing, though. It made me open my eyes. And I don’t want to be that person anymore,” she said. If her pregnancy hadn’t ended in stillbirth, “I probably would have done what I always did, and that’s probably go get high just to take a little bit of the pain away,” but now “I just want to be a better mom for my kids.”
When Judge Burns read his decision, though, he concluded, “There is no indication of remorse by the defendant for her conduct.” He also noted that Adora “presents a danger to the public” as a 30-year-old woman who could “continue to become pregnant and use controlled substances.” Arguing that Adora had dodged a life sentence by pleading guilty to manslaughter and not murder, and that she “risked and ultimately sacrificed the life of her own child to satisfy her own selfish desire to get high,” Judge Burns sentenced Adora to the upper term of 11 years in state prison for her stillbirth.
After Adora was sentenced, her attorney filed a form that preserved her ability to appeal her case — but then stopped answering Adora and her family’s phone calls, they say. (She did not respond to requests for comment for this article.) Another attorney eventually filed an appeal, which was later denied. Adora, for her part, did her best to adjust to prison life — hoping, if nothing else, that she might get out in seven or eight years instead of 11. And that might have been what happened if another case hadn’t drawn national attention to Hanford.
A year after Adora’s sentencing, another woman was charged with murder under nearly identical circumstances. Chelsea Becker was arrested on November 6, 2019, after giving birth to a stillborn son on September 10 at the very same hospital. Chelsea’s case drew national scrutiny after it was covered by the Los Angeles Times, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and National Advocates for Pregnant Women stepped in to provide legal aid — arguing that, under California law, she should never have been prosecuted for her pregnancy outcome. Then, in researching what happened to Chelsea, a reporter dug up Adora’s case. In the spring of 2020, two years into her sentence at the world’s largest women’s prison, Adora received a letter from a team of pro bono attorneys working with the ACLU and NAPW offering to take on her case.
Under California law, the lawyers explained, Adora should never have been prosecuted. On October 21, 2020, Matthew Missakian, Mary McNamara, and Audrey Barron filed an application to recall the judge’s order denying Adora’s appeal — which would allow her to reappeal her conviction. The ACLU of Northern California and the Drug Policy Alliance filed amicus briefs in support. And then–Attorney General Xavier Becerra took the unusual step of filing a non-opposition letter, signaling his disapproval of the local DA’s decision to prosecute Adora and his own intention not to contest her case if it were reopened at the appeal level.
“I felt relieved,” Adora says, “like I get a second chance.”
Adora’s case is at the center of both local and national debates over the “personhood loophole” of Roe v. Wade. “Part of the holding in Roe was based on the conclusion that constitutional personhood under the 14th Amendment attaches at birth,” says Paltrow of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, one of the authors of the 2013 study on pregnancy prosecution. In his majority opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote that there was no constitutional indication of “pre-natal” personhood, but anti-abortion organizers seized onto something he wrote before that: that if fetal personhood were established, Roe’s “case, of course, collapses.”
Their efforts might soon pay off. It’s this push to establish fetal personhood that’s behind laws like SB 8 in Texas, which effectively banned abortion after six weeks, and the Mississippi law at the heart of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which the Supreme Court will begin hearing oral arguments on this term and could lead to the overturning of Roe. If that happens, experts fear cases like Adora’s — in which women are prosecuted for miscarriages, stillbirths, or abortions — could become much more common. “It is a mistake to think Roe v. Wade is a decision just about the right to abortion,” Paltrow tells me. By determining that constitutional personhood begins at birth, she says, the Court “affirmed and established the fact that women, including those who are pregnant, at all stages of pregnancy, are, in fact, full constitutional persons. The issue we’re facing now is whether the Supreme Court will remove the protection the Constitution affords to all pregnant women, whether they go to term, experience a pregnancy loss, or have an abortion, and deny them fundamental rights, whether through vigilante justice carried out by private citizens in Texas or by rogue prosecutors,” like the Kings County district attorney. She notes that states like Mississippi, where the right to abortion may next fall, have already tried to use criminal laws like those of “depraved heart” homicide, manslaughter, and second-degree murder to prosecute pregnant people — and expects that such cases would only increase if Roe fell. In a report published last month, the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers found that, without Roe, “existing criminal statutes in states across the country will in fact subject women to criminal prosecutions and incarceration for their pregnancy outcomes,” leading to “mass incarceration on an unprecedented scale.”
The district attorney’s office that prosecuted Adora and Chelsea is led by Keith Fagundes, who was elected in 2014. Throughout his campaign, he was open about his conservative values, characteristic of California’s Central Valley. In interviews and Facebook posts, he shared his commitment to volunteering with his church, named the Bible as one of the most inspirational books he has ever read, and invited supporters to a campaign dinner where they could win a shotgun. After he was sworn into office and later won reelection in 2018, he shared more overt opinions on social media: an image of a 12-week-old fetus flagged by Facebook as misinformation, a post applauding Trump’s nomination of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, and a link to a blog post by the California Family Council alleging that Planned Parenthood “killed 321,384 babies last year.”
Despite those posts, Fagundes says his office’s decision to prosecute Adora and Chelsea was not politically motivated. “I don’t have any particular mantle or any mission or anything other than to uphold the law, protect victims, and do what’s right,” he tells me. In fact, he said, a female deputy attorney had brought the cases to his attention.
He argues that Adora and Chelsea’s cases are instead about drug abuse and parenting: “Our state condones drug abuse and has yet to take the stance that drug abuse is wrong and bad for any individual. They want to call it a disease instead of a lifestyle choice,” Fagundes says. He argues that incarceration will treat Adora and Chelsea’s substance-abuse disorders. “When it comes to drug rehabilitation, nobody ever is finished being rehabilitated. Once an addict, always an addict. And so the seven or eight years that [Adora will] be incarcerated, she actually will have the ability to engage in drug treatment and other mechanisms to stay clean. So that was the intent behind that case, to give her a life at some point. But she’s got to demonstrate that she’s clean. And maybe someday she can be in her other kids’ lives.”
Although his office classifies these as drug cases, Fagundes uses language to describe stillbirth that threatens the “personhood-loophole.” “It’s appalling to me that, just because a fetus doesn’t have a voice and a young child has no voice, it doesn’t mean that they should be ignored,” he says. “You now have this whole class of people who are capable of living outside of a mother’s womb. They’re more than a clump of cells — they have a heartbeat, brainwaves. They’re able to survive on their own but for reckless and dangerous conduct of the mother.”
California’s feticide law dates back to 1969, when a man assaulted his pregnant ex-wife, causing her stillbirth, but was not convicted because the state’s murder law did not extend to fetuses. Republican state assemblyman Craig Biddle was appalled by the incident. He proposed an amendment to California Penal Code Section 187, signed into law in 1970, which defined murder as “the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought,” with three exceptions: under the state’s Therapeutic Abortion Act, to protect the life of the mother, or when the act was “solicited, aided, abetted or consented to by the mother of the fetus.” In a 1992 sworn affidavit, Biddle explained that no legislator ever suggested that the law “could be used to make punishable as murder conduct by a pregnant woman that resulted in the death of her fetus.”
Just three years after Biddle’s amendment passed, Claudia Tucker was charged with murder after she shot herself in the abdomen when “her husband threatened to leave her if she had another child,” said Paltrow. As a young attorney at the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, Paltrow herself became involved in defending California mothers prosecuted for their birth outcomes when she handled Pamela Rae Stewart’s case in 1987. The 1990s saw another spate of prosecution — but in each case, the courts found that the women could not be convicted under Section 187.
“We haven’t seen similar prosecutions [in California] in the many intervening years since then,” said Paltrow. “Until the ones in Hanford against Ms. Perez and Ms. Becker.”
Where the State of California has traditionally interpreted Section 187’s exception for any action “solicited, aided, abetted or consented to by the mother of the fetus” to mean that mothers cannot be prosecuted for their pregnancy outcomes, Fagundes’s office argues that that language means mothers can only consent to actions committed by a third party, not themselves (such as a therapeutic abortion performed by a clinician, but not a self-managed abortion or a pregnancy loss). Fagundes maintains his case has “nothing to do with abortion.” He says he was disconcerted when national advocacy organizations became involved in both cases after Chelsea’s arrest — and connected the cases to abortion access. “That’s just the political machine behind wanting to completely legalize abortion and the ability to kill a fetus at any stage,” he said.
Fagundes remembers his office’s approach to prosecuting Adora and Chelsea as compassionate. “We don’t just rush out while the mother’s in the hospital and arrest either of these two women. There was months later, we let the investigation develop, we did plenty of medical research on the topic, got experts involved to give us opinions,” he said. (It is true that his office waited two months to arrest Chelsea Becker, but Adora was arrested less than two days after giving birth.)
Whatever the outcome of Adora’s case, Hanford will fit into an ongoing history of nationwide pregnancy prosecution that has adopted creative charges, like contributing to the delinquency of a minor, to arrest women. One charge in particular has gained traction since the 1990s: child endangerment. Back then, South Carolina adapted the law to prosecute mothers who use “dangerous” substances during their pregnancies. Since the mid-aughts, a slew of other states have followed suit. The charge hasn’t always been limited to illicit substances — in 2011, a New Jersey woman was placed on the state’s child-abuse registry after using methadone to treat her opioid addiction while she was pregnant. In 2014, an Alabama woman was charged with chemical endangerment for taking one Valium while pregnant. And in Arizona, a woman is currently fighting the state’s decision to add her to its child-abuse registry for using medical marijuana during her pregnancy. In California, this trend of prosecution continues in San Diego, where a woman was recently charged with second-degree murder after her child died during a homebirth.
If anything, Paltrow says, pregnancy prosecution has become more common: In the process of updating their report since 2005, she and Flavin have identified more than 800 cases, meaning “in half the number of years, there have been twice as many arrests.”
Three years into her prison sentence, Adora’s Facebook account is a proud mother’s altar frozen in time. Her bio reads “My kidz -r- better then urz,” and her photos show her children on playground slides and cuddling on the couch, but her maternal pride is mixed with sadness. In 2013, just weeks after she delivered her sixth child, she wrote, “I no things ain’t going so good rite now and. I no I’m the one to blame. I can’t promise the stars and the moon. But I can promise? Things will get better sooner then you think. I love you guys and always thinking about all 6 of u.” In the years to come, she would reshare images with captions like “You were once my escape, now you are just someone I need to escape from” and “You can’t break a girl who is already broken.” Her last public post is from June 2017, when she was only a few weeks pregnant with Hades. Since then, the toddlers in her photographs have started elementary school, her 1-year-old has turned 4, and her teenage daughter is almost a legal adult.
When we spoke, Adora had just come out of a three-week quarantine because of a coronavirus outbreak at the Central California Women’s Facility. She seemed nervous, a little shy to share so much of her life with someone she’d only just met. She said she hadn’t shared her story with anyone else besides her lawyers. “You don’t just wanna go tell your story to anyone” in prison, she told me.
“I was in their lives,” she says of her children, “but I wasn’t.” She wants to return to rehab and prove to CPS she deserves custody, though that hope hinges on her being released while her children are still young enough to be raised. In the meantime, her children, like millions of others with incarcerated parents, are at greater risk of developing ADD/ADHD, learning disabilities, anxiety, and depression. Her attorneys are realistic that her case could take years. Although California’s attorney general Rob Bonta has emphatically expressed his support of Adora, filing documents in support of her case in both the California Supreme and Kings County superior courts, the Supreme Court has denied Adora’s request to reopen her appeal. Her final hope hinges on a writ of habeas corpus filed in the local trial court. Meanwhile, Chelsea Becker, the white woman arrested almost two years after Adora, was released from jail this March into a residential treatment program, her case dismissed on different grounds. The judge ruled that prosecutors failed to prove that Chelsea acted with malice — meaning other women could still be prosecuted for their stillbirths.
Three years into her 11-year sentence, Adora talks to her four children who live with her grandparents almost every day, and her two eldest — who live with her ex — weekly. They always ask when she’s coming home. She’s started writing letters to her youngest daughter too, who’s now 6 years old and living with her adoptive family elsewhere in the Central Valley, collecting them in a folder to send in the event they regain contact.
“I have these dreams where I’m with my kids and we’re all having fun,” she says. She tells them she’ll be home soon, and they say no, she won’t; she doesn’t remember where she is. Her older children appear in these dreams, but Hades never has. “I know that he was a beautiful baby, but you know, I get mad at myself,” she told me. “Because, how can I forget how he looks?” She doesn’t have a photograph to remember him by, only the memory of holding him in the Adventist Health maternity wing before she fell asleep.
Cecilia Nowell is a freelance reporter covering gender, reproductive health, LGBTQ issues, Indigenous communities, and Latin America.
Co-published with The Cut.