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‘I Can’t Get Those Days Back’: Pittsburgh Hospital Tests Black Woman for Drugs During Childbirth, Leading to ‘Humiliating’ Child Abuse Probe

A Pennsylvania woman said she feels violated and traumatized after the hospital where she gave birth screened her for illicit drugs without her consent, then handed off the false-positive results to state child protective authorities.

Cherrell Harrington is now suing Allegheny County and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, arguing the “questionable test results” made her the target of a baseless, “highly intrusive” and “coercive” child abuse investigation.

Drug Test
Cherrell Harrington of Pittsburgh claims she was drug-tested without her consent after giving birth — a test that returned a false-positive result. (Photo: Getty Images)

In a seven-count civil lawsuit filed Wednesday, March 11, Harrington alleges she was humiliated and “subjected to multiple home inspections” by county officials as a result of the shoddy test results provided to Allegheny County Children, Youth and Families.

“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,” Harrington told the Associated Press. “We were there to deliver our children.”

She added, “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.”

Harrington delivered her baby boy at the UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in November 2017. According to her complaint, the mom of two said medical staff never told her they were taking a urine sample or testing for drugs — including marijuana, Trib Live reported. Her test returned an “unconfirmed positive” and a follow-up test came back negative, the lawsuit states.

Harrington’s newborn also tested negative, confirming no maternal drug use.

Still, hospital staff informed her the next day that she’d tested positive for marijuana and would face an investigation for possible child abuse.

Harrington said she was assigned a caseworker who told her she’d have to undergo mandatory drug counseling, or enter into long-term drug testing. She alleges officials even came to her home and questioned her pre-teen daughter about “about her mother’s ‘use of addictive substances.’ “

It was only after a second negative drug test that Harrington was let off the hook.

UPMC officials since have defended the move, saying they were only following proper procedure. 

“UPMC clinicians make informed decisions regarding screening and drug testing for new mothers and newborns,” the hospital said in a statement, adding that the health system follows state law in “reporting these findings to the Pennsylvania Office of Children, Youth and Family Services.” 

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that this is the second such lawsuit filed against UPMC since 2014. Two other mothers named in Harrington’s lawsuit voiced similar complaints against the hospital.

Harrington’s lawyer, Margaret S. Coleman, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the Child Protective Services Law requires that police officers, teachers, clergy and others report suspected cases of child abuse. Coleman added that reporting maternal drug abuse to authorities though is limited to cases that show that the child is harmed or affected in some way. The newspaper also reports that, nationwide, laws vary on testing new mothers and infants for drugs, with few states criminalizing positive results.

Harrington is seeking unspecified compensatory damages, as well as legal fees, reimbursement for related costs for breach of physician-patient confidentiality and other claims.

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