Woman alleges Hoffman Estates hospital tested her for drugs without her consent before she gave birth, notified DCFS when she got a false positive – Chicago Tribune

A Wood Dale woman who gave birth at a Hoffman Estates hospital last year has filed a charge of discrimination with the Illinois Department of Human Rights alleging the hospital tested her urine for drugs without her consent, and then reported her to the state’s child welfare agency despite her insistence that the positive result was because she ate poppy seed cake.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and National Advocates for Pregnant Women filed the charge of discrimination on behalf of the 46-year-old woman against Amita Health St. Alexius Medical Center Hoffman Estates last week.
The woman is referred to only as “Ms. F” in the charge, which alleges that the hospital violated the Illinois Human Rights Act by testing her urine for drugs without her knowledge or consent and then reporting her to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services based on a false positive result.
“We’re really worried about these kinds of intrusive drug testing,” said Emily Hirsch, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Illinois. “There’s no medical reason to drug test all pregnant people as they come in for medical care and these kind of blanket policies really deter pregnant people from getting treatment and support. … She’s coming in and the only reason they’re drug testing her is because she’s pregnant, and that is a form of sex discrimination.”
Tim Nelson, a spokesman for Amita Health, said in an email the health system can’t comment on pending litigation and did not answer questions about whether the hospital or Amita Health performs drug tests on all pregnant women who are admitted.
It’s unclear how widespread the practice of drug testing pregnant women is at Illinois hospitals. But Hirsch worries that it may be common, and Emma Roth, a staff attorney with National Advocates for Pregnant Women, said it happens frequently across the country. Similar complaints have been filed involving hospitals in other parts of the U.S. as well.
The Wood Dale woman alleges that on the evening of Easter Sunday, when she was 34 weeks pregnant, she drove to the St. Alexius emergency room because of high blood pressure. She had previously been diagnosed with preeclampsia — a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure — and was told to go to the ER if her blood pressure spiked.
After she arrived, medical staff took blood and urine, which she assumed were being collected for reasons related to her preeclampsia.
She alleges she didn’t realize they had tested her urine for drugs until two days later, shortly before her labor was induced, at which point an obstetrician told her she had tested positive for opiates. The woman said she told nurses and doctors that she had not taken any drugs, and the only possible explanation was that it was a false positive because, the day she was tested and the day before, she had eaten makoweic, a poppy seed cake that’s a traditional Polish Easter dessert.
Research has shown that it is possible for people to sometimes test positive for opiates after eating poppy seeds.
She alleges that a doctor and nurse brushed off her concerns.
The baby was born premature but developmentally healthy, and showed no signs of withdrawal, according to the charge. The hospital tested the baby’s cord blood, and the mother was told it had tested positive for morphine. Hirsch said that was because of the poppy seed cake as well.
A hospital social worker then reported the woman to DCFS, which sent an agent to interview the woman at the hospital, the charge alleges. The agent told the woman that the baby could not go home with her unless a third party would be in the house with her and the baby at all times. Because her husband and his family had to work, and because her relatives live outside the country, the family paid a friend of a relative to stay in their home for two weeks with the family, and the baby was allowed to go home.
Agents from DCFS visited the woman’s home regularly to check on the child, and she was told to get drug tested several more times, the charge alleges.
After a couple months, the woman said she received a letter saying that DCFS had found the report of suspected child abuse or neglect to be “unfounded.”
“The day (Ms. F) gave birth should have been the most joyful day of her life, yet Saint Alexius turned it into a living nightmare,” the charge alleges. The experience and weeks that followed caused the woman to feel shame and fear, as she recovered from her C-section and tried to breastfeed and bond with her baby, the charge alleges.
The Illinois Department of Human Rights did not respond to questions about the charge Thursday. But the department can mediate and investigate complaints and issue findings. If it finds substantial evidence of the charge, the complaint can be taken to court or filed with the Illinois Human Rights Commission, among other outcomes.
It’s an issue that’s come up in other states as well. A lawsuit was filed in 2020 in Pennsylvania involving a woman who said her urine was tested for drugs without her consent shortly before she gave birth. Also, National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which is based in New York, recently worked with the New York Civil Liberties Union to file complaints with that state’s Division of Human Rights on behalf of two new mothers who say they were given drug tests without their consent at a New York hospital and received false positives because they ate poppy seeds.
The Wood Dale woman reached out to National Advocates for Pregnant Women after hearing about the cases in New York, Roth said. National Advocates for Pregnant Women is a nonprofit that focuses on the human and civil rights, health and welfare of pregnant and parenting women.
A spokeswoman for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said Thursday the group couldn’t comment on how commonly hospitals perform drug tests on pregnant women. The group, however, says that routine screening for substance use disorders can be done through conversations with patients or through questionnaires, and routine lab testing is not required.
When doctors must test patients for drugs, for medical or legal reasons, “there is an ethical responsibility to notify patients of this testing and make a reasonable effort to obtain informed consent,” according to the group’s guidance. The group encourages doctors to be aware of their states’ reporting requirements related to drug abuse by pregnant women, and to work with their state lawmakers “to retract legislation that punishes women for substance abuse during pregnancy.”
Illinois is one of 25 states where health care providers are required to report suspected prenatal drug use, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Eight states require testing when prenatal drug use is suspected, but Illinois is not one of them, according to the institute.
lschencker@chicagotribune.com
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