Hospital Sued Over Quick-Screening Drug Test

A mother's false positive result resulted in a child abuse investigation.

Cherell Harrington, center, talks with her attorney in Pittsburgh, March 11, 2020.
Cherell Harrington, center, talks with her attorney in Pittsburgh, March 11, 2020.
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

A mother sued a Pittsburgh hospital Wednesday, saying it collected and tested her urine for drugs without her consent while she was in labor and reported a false positive result to protective services that resulted in a child abuse investigation.

It is the second such lawsuit filed against the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center since 2014 and one of a few legal actions or ethical complaints filed around the country over false positives on quick-screening urine drug tests that triggered child abuse investigations and turned the joy of giving birth into a nightmare of custody concerns.

Cherell Harrington, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit filed in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, gave birth to her third child at UPMC's Magee-Women's Hospital in November 2017. She says medical staff collected her urine without her consent and tested her for drugs.

An unconfirmed positive result came back for components of marijuana. Hospital staff then tested her newborn son — results were negative — but they still reported the unconfirmed test results to Allegheny County's Office of Children, Youth and Families.

That office required a home visit that included a caseworker photographing Harrington's children and asking her then 11-year-old daughter about her mother's “use of addictive substances.” Even after a recommendation was made not to require treatment, the caseworker also obtained medical records and called her dentist, pediatrician and her daughter's school.

Harrington said she was threatened with longer-term mandatory drug testing if she did not submit to the program and the contacts. She argues in the lawsuit that the hospital and the county violated her constitutional rights and her medical privacy.

Harrington said in an interview Wednesday that she was reluctant to go back to UPMC to seek care after her cesarean section. The hospital system made her feel violated and traumatized, she said.

“I would like for them to acknowledge that they have hurt many women and children and ruined experiences when they shouldn’t have the power to do that. We were there to deliver our children,” Harrington said. “And what they did was so traumatizing and so hurtful. I can’t get that birth, I can't get those days back. I can’t. I want them to change what they are doing and just stop it.”

Lawyers are seeking class action for the lawsuit and damages for all plaintiffs.

UPMC spokeswoman Amy Charley emailed a statement from the hospital system saying it follows state laws when reporting test results.

“UPMC clinicians make informed decisions regarding screening and drug testing for new mothers and newborns. UPMC follows Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Law, which mandates health care professionals to report these findings to the Pennsylvania Office of Children, Youth and Family Services,” she wrote.

Officials with Allegheny County, which is also named in the lawsuit, said they could not comment on open litigation. But Jacki Hoover, the deputy director at the county's Department of Human Services overseeing the division of Children, Youth and Families, said when the agency receives reports from a health care facility or any mandated reported, they have a process they must follow including an interview and an initial assessment of the home and the child's safety.

Laws on testing new mothers and infants for drugs vary across the country, with a few states criminalizing positive results and more than a dozen others classifying positive results as a form of child abuse.

Lawsuits or ethical complaints have been filed in New York, California, Alabama, Maryland and a handful of other states over the past decade after mothers say they received unconfirmed or false positive results from eating poppy seed bagels or salad dressing, taking doctor-approved Valium, and using prescribed asthma inhalers.

Quick panel urine drug tests are very sensitive, and false or unconfirmed positives do happen, said Marta Concheiro-Guisan, a professor of toxicology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

“I can understand using those kinds of quick screenings for medical purposes, to know if there needs to be an intervention on a baby suffering from withdrawal,” she said. “But using these quick screenings to challenge the custody of a child is a big issue. If the test comes back negative, they're very sensitive in general, so that's the end of the road. But if it's positive, you always have to run a confirmatory test with more sophisticated technology.”

“You would never testify in court based on that screening,” she added.

The number of false positives returned by the urine tests is high enough that several experts have recommended against universal testing and instead advise using a questionnaire for screening pregnant women for drug use. But sometimes those can also be problematic if a woman isn't truthful or if her answers are interpreted incorrectly.

A second mother named in the lawsuit, Deserae Cook, said she told a UPMC Mercy campus nurse during an intake questionnaire that she had smoked marijuana in the past but had not done so since becoming pregnant. Cook's urine was collected and tested without her consent, and her newborn daughter was drug tested.

Both tests came back negative, but the hospital still reported Cook's answers to the Department of Children, Youth and Families, triggering a child abuse investigation.

“It was like a kick in the stomach. What's the reasoning? It felt embarrassing and humiliating. It felt like they were tying to find something, trying to take our child away,” Cook said.

Attorney Maggie Coleman filed the Allegheny County lawsuit in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, saying there are likely dozens of women who have had similar experiences with child services because of what she said were the hospital's unconstitutional practices.

Coleman was the attorney for another Allegheny County woman, Rachael Devore, who resolved a lawsuit against UPMC in 2014. Devore similarly alleged that the hospital collected and tested her urine without her consent and reported “unconfirmed positive” test results to Children, Youth and Families.

UPMC had argued in that case that it is a mandatory reporter and immune from the lawsuit because it made the report in good faith.

In court documents, Coleman argued that the report was not in good faith because in Devore's case, like both Cook and Harrington, her baby did not show symptoms of withdrawal and tested negative for any drugs.

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