New Mom Wins Suit Over Baby-Seizing Nightmare
(CN) - A child services department must pay after it made a mother spend 75 days away from her newborn because ingesting poppy seeds caused her to fail a drug test, a federal judge ruled.
Eileen Bower had gone into labor and was taken to Jameson Health Systems, on July 12, 2009, shortly after a barbecue dinner at her new home in Lawrence County, Pa.
The 20-year-old patient provided a urine sample at about 11 p.m., allegedly unaware that it would be used for a drug screen. About an hour later, she gave birth to a son, Brandon.
Without notifying the mother, Jameson forwarded her urine, which tested "present" for an unlisted amount of morphine, to Quest Diagnostics for confirmation, the complaint states.
The mother claims that, although the Lawrence County Children and Youth Services intake screening form noted that "baby tested negative" and that there was no present or impending danger, a Jameson social worker advised Bower of her positive drug screen and that Jameson had reported it to LCCYS.
Bower denied any drug use and found on her cellphone that the McCormick Foods Supreme Pasta dressing she had bought at Wal-Mart and eaten at dinner contained poppy seeds.
The notes taken by county caseworker Eva Lightel state that Jameson social worker Barb Smolnik said there was "no explanation for the opiates" and that the test did not appear to be a "false positive."
Following department policy, Lightel obtained an ex parte order to take Brandon into custody on the morning of July 15 - without interviewing anyone, checking Bower's prior negative drug tests, obtaining the baby's negative test or offering services, according to Bower's federal complaint in the Western District of Pennsylvania.
Although Smolnik told Lightel that Bower had allegedly eaten poppy seeds, the caseworker did not investigate the mother's explanation, according to the complaint.
That same day, Quest reported that the concentration of morphine in Bower's urine was 100 nanograms per mL - 1900 less than the level set for federal workplace testing - so that the reference range was "none detected."
Bower claims that she was nevertheless allowed only one hour-long visit with Brandon each week, except a few times when Lightel was on vacation, for the first 75 days of his life.
U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry dismissed Bower's claims for negligence against the department and Lightel and "false light invasion of privacy" against Jameson in 2011, but her claims of due process violations under the 14th Amendment, conspiracy to violate her constitutional rights, and negligence survived.
Finding Lightel and Jameson immune from suit, the judge granted their motions for summary judgment last week and tossed aside Bower's conspiracy claim. McVerry awarded Bower summary judgment, however, against the department on the due process claim.
"Jameson staff seemed to believe Bower and provided information about how poppy seeds can cause a 'false positive' test," McVerry wrote. "Baby Brandon's meconium test on July 17 was negative. Bower's July 20 drug test was negative. Other random drug tests of Bower during the 75-day deprivation were also negative. The July 27 drug and alcohol evaluation of Bower determined that 'no treatment is recommended at this time.' Despite all of this information that negated a suspicion of child abuse, LCCYS [the department] never exhibited a sense of urgency to remedy its wrongful decision to take Baby Brandon into custody. LCCYS' efforts to facilitate weekly visits between Bower and Baby Brandon were lacking - on several occasions, no visit occurred because Lightel was on vacation and no alternatives were provided. For a two-week period, while Bower and Baby Brandon were separated, LCCYS did not even have a caseworker assigned -- Lightel was removed from the case on July 30 but her replacement, McConahy, did not become involved until August 11. It was LCCYS who violated plaintiff's fundamental rights, and thus, LCCYS had a duty to remedy that violation as quickly as possible.
The issue of damages will be submitted to a jury, the ruling states.
"By taking custody of Baby Brandon without any effort to corroborate the drug test and without talking to the parent, LCCYS policy did not provide sufficient protection for the fundamental parental rights involved in light of the drastic nature of the deprivation," McVerry wrote. "The LCCYS action in this case was an arbitrary use of government power which transcended the realm of negligence and deliberate indifference. Lightel stated: 'I have the hospital saying she tested positive and that was enough for me [to get an ex parte order to take the child].' The removal of Baby Brandon based solely on Jameson's report of the initial urine screen - with no individualized investigation - shocks the conscience and violates plaintiff's substantive due process rights."
A pretrial conference will be held Sept. 13, according to the ruling.