PITTSBURGH - Jameson Hospital and Lawrence County Children and Youth Services (LCCYS) paid $143,500 to settle a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania on behalf of a couple whose newborn daughter was seized by LCCYS and held for five days after the mother failed a hospital drug test because she had recently eaten a bagel with poppy seeds.
Jameson and LCCYS have also made changes to their policies to ensure that infants are not separated from their parents solely on the basis of maternal drug tests, which can be inaccurate.
"I am happy that the changes made by CYS and the hospital will prevent similar situations to others in the future," said Elizabeth Mort, mother to now-three-year-old Isabella.
"We are pleased that Jameson and LCCYS have taken steps to prevent other families from having to experience the pain that Liz and Alex felt when their three-day-old daughter was needlessly taken from their home," said Sara Rose, an ACLU of Pennsylvania staff attorney. "We hope that this case will encourage hospitals that routinely test pregnant women for drug use to reconsider that practice due to the harm that can result from false positives."
Two days after the birth of Isabella, their first child, 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.
According to the lawsuit, Jameson Hospital, where Mort gave birth, used a much lower threshold for a positive drug screening than federal guidelines, leading to a higher rate of false positives. Jameson had 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.
Since the lawsuit was filed, Jameson has stopped contacting LCCYS to report positive maternal drug tests. If the mother's test is positive or the mother does not consent to a drug test, Jameson will perform a drug test on the infant. Jameson will only contact LCCYS if the infant's drug test is positive.
Mort believes that her positive drug test resulted from a bagel with poppy seeds she had eaten two hours before checking into the hospital. Jameson reported the positive test result to LCCYS without asking Mort whether she had eaten anything that could have cause the positive result. LCCYS then sought a court order to remove Isabella from her parents based solely on Jameson's claim that Mort's drug test was positive and without making any attempt to interview the parents or other family members or contact Mort's obstetrician before seizing Isabella.
LCCYS has changed its policy for investigating reports of drug use by pregnant women and will discuss any positive drug test results with the infant's mother and father prior to seeking a court order to remove the infant from the parents' custody.
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 Patricia 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, can be found at: /our-work/legal/legaldocket/mortvlawrencecountychildre/