Exaggeration is no stranger to political advertising, especially as the days grow short to election day.
But an Athens-Limestone Hospital official says a political ad for Republican candidate for district attorney, Brian C.T. Jones, which quotes local obstetrician-gynecologist Thomas Pitman that there are “hundreds of cases annually” of babies born to mothers addicted to meth, cocaine and illegally obtained drugs is misleading.
Pitman states in a televised ad, which also appears on Jones’ Facebook social networking page that he has delivered “40 percent of the babies in Limestone County in the last 10 years and hundreds have been born under the influence of illegal drugs.”
Jones is challenging Democratic incumbent Kristi Valls in the Nov. 2 General Election and he says she hasn’t been diligent enough in prosecuting drug cases.
Jim Moffatt, chairman of the hospital board of directors, said he has been inundated with calls since Jones’ ad appeared on TV and print publications. Moffatt wrote a letter to The News Courier seeking to give a clearer picture of the “meth baby” situation locally.
There might be “hundreds of cases annually” of children born to drug abusers, but they are not being born locally, he said.
“Athens-Limestone Hospital and our physicians take very seriously the health care of mothers and babies that we deliver,” wrote Moffatt. “Since January 1 of 2010, 369 babies have been born at Athens-Limestone Hospital. Of those, 14 of those babies were considered drug dependency issues, and in five of those cases, crystal methamphetamine was involved.
“Of those 14 drug cases, four of those involved residents of other counties, three from Madison County and one from Lauderdale County. Of the 14 cases, Athens-Limestone Hospital referred 12 to the Limestone County Department of Human Resources, the other two cases already had the Department of Human Resources involved. The numbers for Athens-Limestone Hospital and Limestone County are much lower than surrounding counties.
“The hospital and its staff believe it important that this issue be addressed and that patient and community safety takes precedence over political sound bites. One meth baby is one too many. Athens-Limestone Hospital has always had the greatest cooperation from law enforcement, the Department of Human Resources, and the Limestone County District Attorney’s Office in dealing with the cases we do have.”
On a locally produced TV program Friday, both Jones and Pitman reiterated what was published in the ad. Pitman said the ad originated when he initiated a call to Jones inquiring about prosecution and penalties for addicted mothers because he said he was seeing increasing numbers of such patients in his practice.
“I’ve never been political,” said Pitman on the Jamie Cooper Show. “But Americans complain a lot but don’t put their foot down. And the problem is getting worse and worse.”
Pitman did not state numbers during his appearance on the show.
However, Jones called his campaign advertising “a powerful ad.”
“The system is a revolving door,” said Jones. He said he had checked state statistics on Limestone County.
“Between 2002 and 2009 Limestone County processed 7,500 cases and only 16 went to jury trial,” he said. “We have got a problem.”
Jones said drug users, manufacturers and dealers are going through the system sometimes six times, “and only getting a slap on the wrist and away they go.”
Jones further said his campaign promise is: “If you sell, cook or use meth, we’re going to put you in jail and I’ll work seven days a week if necessary.”
Valls said Friday that mothers giving birth to babies under the influence of illegal drugs have only been prosecuted locally since 2007 and she doesn’t know where Pitman is deriving his claim of “hundreds.”
She said her records show 12 mothers in four years against which law enforcement officials could “make a case.”
“On June 1, 2006, the state enacted the chemical endangerment law for situations in which someone in a meth house had a lab and children were present,” said Valls. “They wanted a tool for that purpose, so they passed the law.
“The law was since used to take in those who also use meth, smoke crack or marijuana while pregnant. Since it was enacted, Limestone County law enforcement has arrested and made cases to bring for prosecution 32 people in four years.
“Of those 32 cases, 12 involved babies born at Athens-Limestone Hospital. Of the 12 cases that were made, they were mandatorily reported (by doctors) to DHR, which takes them to law enforcement, which then brings it to me. If a doctor doesn’t report it, then it doesn’t go.
“If there is no probable cause, it is not brought to me. I am comfortable that law enforcement and DHR handled those cases properly.”
Valls said of those 12 cases, six are pending because they either haven’t gone to the grand jury or they are awaiting a court date. Three have been convicted, and of those three, two are on supervised probation in which they must undergo periodic drug testing, and one has been sentenced to jail.
Three were “nol prossed.” Valls said of those three, two completed 12 to 18 months of drug court in which for pleading guilty up front and completion, they have their charges dismissed. The remaining person completed drug rehabilitation but had her parental rights terminated before her case was dismissed.
Valls said that Jones has cited the 7,500 cases processed and the prosecution by her of just 16 jury trials in political forums.
Valls acknowledges that she has prosecuted just 16 jury trials, but she said they include various offenses, including murder, and are not all drug related. She said she has been unable to determine where Jones derives his oft-stated number of 7,500 defendants processed for court.
She said the Administrative Office of Courts in Montgomery, which keeps those figures, archives all felonies and circuit court cases. But she said included in those numbers are defendants who appeal their misdemeanor convictions in circuit court.
“He equates jury trials with justice, but justice is meant in a number of ways,” said Valls. She said her assistants try cases and many defendants plead guilty. As for Jones’ claim that Limestone County has one of the highest incidence of recidivism in the state, Valls said, “I’ve never heard that in my life, and all I have to say is prove it.”
Valls says Limestone County only allots eight jury trial weeks a year and there is just one courtroom in which jury trials can be held.
“Name me another county that has eight weeks for jury trials and one courtroom, then we can compare it with Limestone County,” she said.