Poppy Seed Peril

Eat a bagel, lose your baby


Elizabeth Mort and Alex Rodriguez, a young Pennsylvania couple, had been home from the hospital for barely a day when caseworkers from Lawrence County Children and Youth Services, accompanied by a police officer, came to take their newborn baby. The officials kept the child for five days before admitting they had made a mistake—all because of a poppy seed bagel.

Mort ate the bagel two hours before she was admitted to New Castle's Jameson Hospital, where her daughter, Isabella, was born on April 27. She did not realize that her snack could trigger a positive urinalysis result for opiates or that the hospital has a policy of reporting such results to the county. The county, in turn, has a policy of automatically seizing babies from mothers who test positive for illegal drugs, without investigating further to see whether the children are actually in danger of abuse or neglect.

In a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Mort and Rodriguez at the end of October, the Pennsylvania branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued that the baby-snatching collaboration between Lawrence County and Jameson Hospital (actual motto: "there's no place like home") is a conspiracy to deprive parents of their 14th Amendment rights. The ACLU noted that the cutoff level the hospital uses for its opiate test, 300 nanograms of morphine per milliliter of urine, is much lower than the threshold used in tests of federal employees, which is set at 2,000 nanograms per milliliter.

According to the ACLU's complaint, Mort's obstetrician "did not inform Plaintiff Mort of the positive UDS [urine drug screen] because, in her experience, many of the initial UDS tests come back as 'false positives,'?" because "Plaintiff's urine tests throughout her pregnancy were negative for the presence of drugs," because the doctor "did not believe that the Plaintiff was a drug user," and because "she did not want to frighten Plaintiff during her labor/delivery."

Scaring parents is the government's job. "When [Isabella] was gone our family was just at a loss of words," Mort says. "I couldn't stop crying.…We decided to file a lawsuit so that Jameson Hospital and Lawrence County Children and Youth Services could not do this to another innocent family. It breaks families apart. They need to research and ask questions before they jump to conclusions."