NEWARK – Two women, represented by the ACLU of New Jersey, filed complaints today with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights (DCR) for violations of their civil rights after they were drug tested without their knowledge or informed consent and in the absence of medical necessity upon arriving at the hospital to give birth. The filings for Kaitlin K. and Kate L. allege that Hackensack University Medical Center and Virtua Voorhees Hospital’s practice of drug testing pregnant patients violates New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination on the basis of sex and pregnancy and seeks, among other relief, that both hospitals end this unlawful practice.
"Because of what happened, I live in fear of medical tests and how they might be used against me as a mother,” says client Kaitlin K.
Both women’s tests returned positive for opiates based on their consumption of a bagel with poppy seeds the morning they went to the hospital. Based on these tests , the hospitals called the New Jersey Department of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) to report both women for possible abuse or neglect before they even had the chance to parent their newborn children. This led to an invasive, traumatic investigation of each woman’s family that interfered with their first months with their newborns, shattered their trust in medical personnel, and caused fear of further unnecessary scrutiny from the state.
“No one should be subjected to unnecessary and nonconsensual drug tests. Our clients are sending a clear message to hospitals that these testing and reporting policies are unacceptable,” says ACLU-NJ Staff Attorney Molly Linhorst. “Discriminatory testing policies like these upend what should be a time of joy for families, and so often subject them to further trauma and unwarranted investigation by the state.”
“I felt like the doctors were questioning my character and parenting skills,” says client Kate L. “I’m terrified of ever going to a hospital again; I’m always going to worry that our family could be torn apart. That’s why we are doing all we can to stop this from happening to anyone else.”
Drug testing pregnant patients without their consent and knowledge is not only discriminatory, but also opposed by health care providers because it can deter people from seeking vital medical care during and after pregnancy. For example, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists specifically rejects the practice in part because of the devastating legal consequences that a positive test can present. Racial bias also permeates drug testing and reporting decisions; healthcare professionals are more likely to administer drug tests on pregnant Black women and their babies.
“I feel violated. This whole ordeal has been extremely stressful and has turned our lives upside down and now, because of what happened, I live in fear of medical tests and how they might be used against me as a mother,” says client Kaitlin K. “I found out later that the lab used a testing threshold far, far lower than what the federal government uses.”
“I’m terrified of ever going to a hospital again; I’m always going to worry that our family could be torn apart," says client Kate L.
In fact, in Kaitlin's case, a test used a threshold 200 times lower than federal guidelines. In recent years, patients in several states – including in New York, Illinois, and Pennsylvania – have filed cases to challenge similar hospital practices, resulting in policy changes and monetary damages.
The complaints seek a full investigation of the claims and a finding of probable cause that unlawful discrimination occurred. In addition to Linhorst, ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Karen Thompson represents the complainants.