PITTSBURGH - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of a New Castle couple, Elizabeth Mort and Alex Rodriguez, whose newborn daughter was seized and held for five days by Lawrence County Children and Youth Services (LCCYS) after the mother failed a hospital drug test because she had recently eaten a bagel with poppy seeds.
"No parent should have to go through what this couple did," said ACLU of Pennsylvania staff attorney Sara Rose, who is representing Mort and Rodriguez. "This case is a tragic illustration of the harm that can result when the government removes a child based only on the accusation of a third party and without any independent investigation."
After the birth of their first child, a healthy baby girl named Isabella, Mort and Rodriguez returned home from Jameson Hospital on April 29, 2010, expecting to settle in to the challenges and joys of parenthood. Instead, one day later, the new parents were confronted at their home by two LCCYS caseworkers and two police officers armed with a court order to remove the three-day-old infant. This was the first time Mort learned that she had tested positive for drugs while in the hospital. Despite Mort's insistence that she had never used illegal drugs while pregnant, the case workers took Isabella away and held her for five days.
"When she was gone our family was just at a loss of words," Mort said. "I couldn't stop crying. Alex just didn't even know how to be himself. It felt like our heart was ripped in pieces. The most important person was missing, and we didn't know when we would see her again."
According to the lawsuit, Jameson Hospital, where Mort gave birth, uses a much lower threshold for a positive drug screening than federal guidelines, leading to a higher rate of false positives. Jameson has a policy of testing all maternity patients for drugs and requires its staff to notify LCCYS of a positive drug test. Neither practice is required by federal or state law. According to the hospital's policy, a screen is considered positive for opiates at 300 nanograms/mL or above. Federal work-place guidelines, in contrast, are set at 2000 nanograms/mL to avoid false positives from common foods and medicines.
Throughout her stay in the hospital, Mort was never informed that she had tested positive for drugs, nor was she asked whether she had eaten any foods that could interfere with her test result. Mort and her fiancé, Rodriguez, only learned that poppy seeds could create a false positive in a drug test after Mort's distraught father began his own investigation into what could have caused his daughter's positive result. Mort had eaten an "everything" bagel with poppy seeds from Dunkin' Donuts two hours before checking into the hospital.
"Jameson Hospital's policy of drug-testing all obstetrical patients for opiates at cut-off levels so low that they are triggered by the mere consumption of a poppy seed bagel, and then reporting these unreliable results to LCCYS is plainly misguided, and contributed in a significant way to the improper removal of Isabella from the safety and comfort of her home," said Patricia Dodge of Meyer, Unkovic & Scott and one of the attorneys representing Mort and Rodriguez.
The lawsuit claims that Jameson Hospital was responsible for the harm to Mort caused by the removal of her baby because it incorrectly interpreted the results of her drug test and reported a false positive to LCCYS.
The lawsuit also alleges that LCCYS has a policy of violating parents' due process rights by authorizing its caseworkers to take infants into protective custody based solely on positive drug tests by their mothers without any reasonable suspicion that the infant has been abused or is in danger of abuse. In this case, LCCYS made no attempt to interview the parents or other family members or contact Mort's obstetrician before seizing Isabella.
During one meeting between LCCYS and Mort, a caseworker admitted the agency had experienced problems with Jameson in the past and that it made a mistake by removing Isabella. The baby was returned to her parents on May 5, 2010. The following day, LCCYS filed a motion with the court saying "[a]fter further investigation, there is no evidence to support illegal drug use by the natural mother, Elizabeth Mort."
Testing positive for opiates after eating poppy seeds is not an urban myth. Several courts have recognized the risks of a false positive due to common foods and medication. In a 2004 opinion, the Pennsylvania Superior Court stated "We note that eating poppy seeds can produce an opiate positive test result."
The case is Mort v. Lawrence County Children and Youth Services, et al., and Mort and Rodriguez are represented by Dodge of Meyer, Unkovic & Scott and Rose and Witold Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
- More information about the case, including a client statement, photo, and a copy of the complaint