We all have nightmares from which we awaken, in the middle of the night, wiping our brows and silently thanking a deity of one sort or another that it was all just a dream.
But for some, as absurd as the events may seem, the nightmare is real.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of a couple, Elizabeth Mort and Alex Rodriguez, who experienced such a nightmare.
In April of this year, Elizabeth Mort gave birth to a beautiful baby girl; her first child. The baby’s name is Isabella. The threesome (Mort, Rodriguez and Isabella) returned home on April 29th, 2010, from Jameson Hospital where isabella was born, ready to settle into life as a family. One day later baby Isabella was taken from her parents by Lawrence County Child and Youth Services (LCCYS) and held for five days at an undisclosed location, because Mort had failed a drug test given to her while in the hospital.
Only, she wasn’t on drugs. Not even close.
Mort had eaten a poppy-seed bagel from Dunkin’ Donuts two hours prior to checking into the hospital before giving birth. The drug test picked up on the poppy seeds and came out positive. The agency, with two police officers present, acting on the information from the hospital-adminstered drug test, took Isabella from her parents.
“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.”
How did this happen?
Jameson Hospital, according to the lawsuit, tests all of its maternity patients for drugs despite the fact that neither federal nor state law requires it. The hospital also reports all positive drug tests to LCCYS though, again, this is not mandated by law.
Mort had no idea that her drug test had come back positive until her newborn was taken from her. She was never asked, while in the hospital, whether she had eaten or taken anything that might interfere with a drug test. It was not until Mort’s husband began his own research, distraught at his newborn baby being taken away, did he find out independently that poppy-seeds in fact may influence a drug test.
The hospital did not interview Mort, did not speak with family or friends about Mort and whether there was cause for concern over her baby’s welfare; nor did the hospital speak with Mort’s obstetrician before authorizing LCCYS to seize the newborn accompanied by an (unannounced) police presence.
Though Mort was eventually cleared of any illegal drug use and Isabella was reunited with her family, the family is bringing a lawsuit against Jameson to stop the hospital from wreaking unnecessary havoc on other families who may be victimized by the irresponsible policies.
The lawsuit alleges not only that the hospital is responsible for the harm done to Mort, from taking away her baby, but that her rights were violated when the hospital allowed caseworkers to come in and take her baby without any evidence or reasonable suspicion for doing so, except for a positive drug test – which turned out not to be indicative of drugs anyway.
According to the ACLU,
“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.”
The question of why Jameson Hospital has a policy of drug-testing all obstetrical patients and reporting all positive test to LCCYS, without clear goals for moving forward with the information, is central. Maternity patients may need to agree to the test, but are they agreeing to also be reported to a child welfare agency with a positive test? With no direct follow up first with the patient in question? And to what end? Are these tests meant to ensure newborn safety or to help set the stage for further care for the woman – or both? Certainly, if health providers can help offer referrals and resources or support for people who are struggling with drug addiction, that may be helpful. But it’s a tremendous leap from a woman’s positive (potentially false) drug test to immediately removing a newborn from the home with absolutely no supporting evidence. Perhaps it’s not only the hospital, however, that needs to review its policies but the LCCYS as well. Over whose welfare are they watching if they are so quick to remove a newborn from her parents risking such a diastrous mistake?