County settles with mother who lost newborn after erroneous drug test

An ill-timed pasta salad meal just before labor resulted in a Pennsylvania woman losing her newborn for 75 of the first 78 days of the child’s life. Eileen Ann Bower failed a routine post-delivery drug test because of the poppy seeds in her salad. Lawrence County, Pa., just settled Bower’s subsequent lawsuit for $160,000. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that this wasn’t a one-off incident:

In July, Jameson Hospital and Lawrence County Children and Youth Services agreed to pay $143,500 to settle a similar lawsuit filed by Elizabeth Mort, whose infant was taken by a false positive drug test apparently caused by consumption of a poppy seed bagel. Ms. Mort’s daughter was taken from her family for five days.

The hospital and agency indicated then that they no longer take newborns from their parents solely on the basis of maternal drug tests.

On Tuesday, Rachael Devore sued Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, saying a false positive drug test apparently spurred by poppy seeds in farmer’s market bread resulted in an Allegheny County Children Youth and Families investigation of her family.

Drug testing for pregnant women, new mothers and newborns is a policy born of years of overblown media scare-mongering about “crack babies.” The Supreme Court struck down secret, involuntarily drug tests of pregnant women in 2001. But a hospital can still require expectant mothers to consent to drug tests after delivery as a condition for providing services.

The policy is being resurrected today after a new round of media reports about babies born addicted to meth or to prescription painkillers. These latest scares may well be legitimate public health concerns, or years from now we could learn that they were as exaggerated as the crack-baby scare. Either way, drug-testing women right after birth and then removing the babies after positive results is a pretty awful way to address the issue. These tests can and do produce false positives (as do drug tests on infants themselves.) And as with most drug war policies, minority and low-income women are far more likely be tested than white and wealthy women. A study of hospitals in Florida found that the discrepancy extends to reporting women as well — even among women who tested positive, hospital staff were 10 times more likely to report the positive tests from black women to state authorities than the positive tests from white women. And in some states, the penalties can be quite a bit worse — pregnant women and new mothers who fail drug tests can be arrested and prosecuted for child abuse.

None of this is to diminish the seriousness of babies born with addiction. Despite the history of exaggerated media reports on both the prevalence and effects of babies born with a drug addiction, they’re obviously less healthy than babies born without an addiction. They still require more treatment and care. And no one would argue that a new mother with a drug habit presents all sorts of problems for both mother and child. But even if these tests were 100 percent accurate, treating both patients for addiction seems like a far more humane policy than yanking a newborn from his mother’s arms — or sending the mother to prison.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · March 17