CHICAGO – On January 28, 2022, National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) and the ACLU of Illinois filed a charge of discrimination against Saint Alexius hospital with the Illinois Department of Human Rights for a discriminatory, non-consensual drug test of a first-time mother, Ms. F., before she went into labor. The test came back positive for opiates because Ms. F. consumed an Easter cake made with poppy seeds before entering the hospital. Despite this information, shared repeatedly with hospital staff and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), the family remained under scrutiny from DCFS for roughly three months, casting a shadow over the birth of their first child.
“I never imagined that enjoying a traditional Polish cake at an Easter celebration would create suspicion that we would not care for our child,” said Ms. F., who is using her last initial because the event continues to be a source of shame and embarrassment for her family. “My husband and I wanted a child so much and we were overjoyed when I became pregnant. But the actions of the hospital took away that joy and made us feel ashamed – like we had done something wrong. It's been nearly ten months since my baby was born, and I still cry every time I talk about what the hospital did to my family.”
Ms. F. arrived at the hospital on April 4, 2021, at 34 weeks pregnant when her blood pressure rose due to preeclampsia. Saint Alexius staff drew Ms. F’s blood and gathered her urine, which she assumed was for reasons related to her preeclampsia. No one ever informed her of, nor asked her permission for, a drug test. There is no medical justification for drug testing all perinatal patients, and the practice is widely opposed by leading medical organizations.
Ms. F. repeatedly told staff that the only possible explanation for her false positive test was the poppy seed cake. Yet doctors and nurses brushed off her explanation and whispered stigmatizing comments about her positive test result while preparing her for cesarean surgery on April 6, 2021. She cried out of fear and confusion, but her tears were ignored by the medical staff.
Though premature, her baby was born healthy and had no symptoms of withdrawal. Ms. F. was discharged several days later, but her baby remained in the NICU. Hospital staff told Ms. F. that they were reporting the matter to DCFS.
Ultimately, DCFS subjected Ms. F and her husband to a “safety plan,” requiring them to have someone else in the home with Ms. F. and the baby at all times. Because they did not have a family member who could help, the family was forced to pay a stranger to be in their home for hours when the husband was away at work. During this time, a DCFS agent and another state employee came regularly to Ms. F.’s home to check in on her and the baby. The agents would ask each time to see the baby, even if he was sleeping.
Ms. F. felt that the presence of a stranger in her home and the regular visits from the state agents negatively impacted her ability to build a joyful bond with her newborn. It also made it significantly more difficult for her to heal physically and emotionally from her traumatic birth experience.
Ms. F believes that the stress caused by this traumatic experience impacted her ability to breastfeed, something she had long hoped to do, as stress is documented to negatively impact breastfeeding rates.
The investigation lasted until July 1, 2021 when DCFS finally sent her a letter terminating her case. But despite finding no credible information of abuse or neglect, DCFS will maintain the file for 5 years.
The charge alleges that Saint Alexius’s practice of drug testing pregnant women without their knowledge or consent and in the absence of a medical justification discriminated against Ms. F on the basis of sex and pregnancy. This charge comes after National Advocates for Pregnant Women and the New York Civil Liberties Union filed similar charges of discrimination on behalf of two mothers against a hospital in New York State for nonconsensual drug tests that resulted in false positives due to poppy seed consumption.
"Saint Alexius violated Ms. F.'s civil rights by subjecting her to a nonconsensual and medically unnecessary drug test," said Emma Roth, staff attorney at NAPW. "She will never be able to get back those precious first months with her baby. The fact that Ms. F. was reported on the basis of a false positive due to poppy seed consumption highlights the absurdity of Saint Alexius's nonconsensual testing and reporting practices. Yet routine drug testing and reporting of pregnant patients is never justified in light of the harmful consequences for families."
“I cannot imagine enduring this nightmare at what should be such a genuinely happy time for a family,” added Emily Hirsch, staff attorney with the Women’s and Reproductive Rights Project at the ACLU of Illinois. “Saint Alexius violated Illinois law. We hope that Ms. F.’s situation will encourage other institutions to end this practice now.”