A Parent's Nightmare
By Sara Mullen, Associate Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania
Elizabeth Mort and Alex Rodriguez, of New Castle, Penn., thought the most difficult thing facing them when they arrived home from the hospital with their newborn daughter Isabella would be the sleepless nights.
Instead, they were faced with the unthinkable — having their three-day-old daughter taken from them for five days by Lawrence County Children and Youth Services (LCCYS) because of Elizabeth's false-positive drug test performed by the hospital where Isabella was born. Elizabeth, who was eventually cleared of illegal drug use, had eaten an "everything" bagel with poppy seeds two hours before being admitted to the hospital, causing the inaccurate test result (eating poppy seeds can cause drug tests to show false positives for opiate use). Elizabeth was not even told she had tested positive for opiates until two police officers and two caseworkers came to her home and took her newborn baby daughter.
Just imagine the anguish of watching the government take your infant daughter without telling you where she's being held and giving you no means to contest it — all over something you know you didn't do. Although their ordeal ended up lasting only (only!) five days, during that time Elizabeth and Alex had to face the possibility that they might not ever get their daughter back.
"When she was gone our family was just at a loss of words," said Elizabeth about her ordeal. "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."
Neither the hospital nor LCCYS told the family that food or medication could cause a false positive. It wasn't until Elizabeth's distraught father started researching what could cause such a result in a drug test and even called a drug testing facility that they learned the source of false positive.
This family's heartbreak illustrates a point that many people miss — the importance of due process. It can seem like an abstract concept, but it's a vital protection provided by the Constitution. Due process means that the government can't use its awesome powers — whether it be putting you in jail or taking away your child — without giving you the chance to defend yourself. In this case, the Lawrence County Children and Youth Services took away Baby Isabella without talking to her parents, other family members, or Elizabeth's obstetrician — it relied solely on the hospital's report of a positive drug test.
Like any institution made up of fallible human beings, the government and hospitals get it wrong sometimes. That's why it is essential to have mechanisms in place to protect everyone's rights — mechanisms neither the county children and youth services, nor this hospital, have.
Yesterday, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit on behalf of Elizabeth and Alex. "We decided to file a lawsuit was so that Jameson Hospital and Lawrence County Children and Youth Services could not do this to another innocent family," said Elizabeth. "It breaks families apart. They need to research and ask questions before they jump to conclusions."
Our lawsuit claims that Jameson Hospital was responsible for the harm to Elizabeth 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 charges 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.
Thankfully, Baby Isabella will not remember those five days when she was torn apart from her family. But her parents always will.