The “Drunken Breastfeeder” Case: Will the Real Felon Please Stand up?

When I read the Associated Press story this past June about the guilty plea for “child abuse or neglect” by a North Dakota woman alleged to have breastfed her child while intoxicated, a few things leapt off the screen at me. I wondered why this mother had pled guilty. As a lawyer I know that people don’t plead guilty because they are guilty.  Guilty pleas are generally the result of a deal.  The accused is waiving the right to a trial in exchange for an agreed upon sentence or in order to be charged with a lesser crime.  Sometimes they plead guilty because they are frightened or inadequately represented or fear losing or being separated from their children. This woman pled guilty to the original charge so the “deal for a lesser charge” theory can be eliminated. Why then?

Also of significance to me was that the police were called to the mother’s home in response to a “domestic disturbance” call. Often “domestic disturbance” means that the call was in response to domestic violence. Had the original call been made so police would protect the mother?

The next Associated Press article contained a few more clues and some disturbing admissions on the part of the police. This led me to take a look at the Grand Forts Police Incident Summary and States Attorneys Office charge statement. According to these official reports, Stacey Anvarinia stated:

[s]he was assaulted by her boyfriend identified as Harrison, Delbert.

She stated he kneed her in the chin and struck her face when she attempted to leave.

Officers observed red and swelling area on the bridge of her nose, a small scratch to her left cheek, and a red swollen area on her chin.

So Anvarinia had called the police because she had been the victim of a crime. She called for help.

Also according to the police reports, “she was extremely intoxicated.”  How did the police know this? Neither the police reports nor subsequent police comments to the press give any indication.  No report says police smelled alcohol, saw alcohol, heard slurred speech, and the police did not administer a blood-alcohol test.  What behavior did Anvarinia engage in that led to her arrest for child abuse or neglect? She “began breast feeding in front of us.” Paramedics were called but they transported the baby to the hospital. Battered Stacey Anvarinia was taken to jail.

Reports of this story led to much debate about the safety of drinking alcohol while breastfeeding.  That is certainly an important issue.  However, for Stacey Anvarinia, I wonder whether we have any reason to believe she was intoxicated at all. As this case got more press, the Grand Forks police have gotten a little defensive on this point:

This case is more than just the breast-feeding. It was the totality of the circumstances,” said Grand Forks Police Lt. Rahn Farder. “It is quite unusual for a mother to be breast-feeding her child as we are conducting an investigation, whether she was intoxicated or not.

Well, what truly is the totality of the circumstances? In defense of itself, the police cite her breastfeeding as … what? Evidence of her intoxication? Might having been recently beaten cause one to seem disoriented? Check the time she is alleged to have committed the “crime.”  3:57 a.m. Had she slept at all that night? She had injuries to her face. Did she have a head injury? Despite protests that breastfeeding isn’t the issue, the police still only point to her breastfeeding in front of them as being “unusual” in her behavior.

What then happened to Delbert Harrison, the man identified as having beaten Stacey Anvarinia? He was neither arrested nor charged with any crime. Why not?

According to a 2005 study in the American Journal of Public Health, homicide is the third leading cause of injury-related death for women who are pregnant or who have given birth in the previous year.  A 2002 study in The British Medical Journal concluded that a woman’s risk of domestic violence doubles during pregnancy and the year after birth.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported in 2005 that due to poor reporting, we really don’t have accurate figures on how high the rate of homicide is for women during pregnancy and the post-partum period because few states report whether a homicide victim was pregnant or had recently given birth. Even given the admitted under-reporting, homicide was found to be the second leading cause of injury-related maternal death. Of those deaths, 57% were caused by gunfire.

Stacey Anvarinia could have been a homicide statistic.  According to the police report, she was beaten while trying to leave. She reached out to the police to save her.  Instead, they arrested her.

According to news reports, Anvarinia will be sentenced this Friday. Let’s see how much jail time you get for breastfeeding in front of the police you ask to save your life.