PITTSBURGH – Two women who gave birth at UPMC medical facilities and were later harassed repeatedly by the Allegheny County Office of Children Youth and Families (CYF) have filed a class action lawsuit against both the hospital system and the county. According to the lawsuit, UPMC reported confidential medical information about Cherell Harrington and Deserae Cook to the county’s CYF office, triggering investigations by county employees that included repeated home visits and contact with their children’s pediatricians. For Ms. Harrington, the harassment by the county escalated to include calls to her older child’s school and coerced drug testing and drug counseling.
The lawsuit argues that UPMC violated state law protecting patient confidentiality and that both UPMC and the county violated the women’s constitutional rights.
“These women trusted UPMC with one of the most important events of their lives,” said Margaret S. Coleman of the Law Offices of Timothy P. O’Brien, who is representing the women in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “UPMC violated that trust when it gave their confidential medical information to the government.”
In November 2017, Ms. Harrington was admitted to UPMC Magee Women’s Hospital for the birth of her third child. Unbeknownst to her, staff at the hospital tested her urine for drugs, and her results showed an “unconfirmed positive” for marijuana. After the birth of her son on November 29, the hospital staff also tested his urine for drugs, with a negative result. On December 1, a CYF employee visited Ms. Harrington in her hospital room and told her that she was being investigated for child abuse, despite the negative test result for her newborn and no evidence that her other children were in any danger. That investigation led to numerous home visits and a demand by CYF staff that she attend a drug counseling program and complete another drug test.
“I feel betrayed by UPMC,” Harrington said. “I trusted them with the birth of my son. They turned what should have been a wonderful experience into a nightmare. They treated me like a criminal.”
In July 2018, Ms. Cook was admitted to UPMC Mercy for the birth of her second child. At admission, hospital staff asked her if she had ever used illicit drugs, and Ms. Cook responded that she had consumed marijuana in the past but “stopped everything” when she became pregnant. Without her knowledge, hospital staff collected her urine for drug testing, with a negative result. After her daughter was born on July 7, the baby’s urine was also tested and was found to be negative for drugs.
Nevertheless, UPMC told CYF that Ms. Cook had admitted to using marijuana while pregnant. Shortly after her discharge on July 9, she received a notice requiring her to contact CYF for a home inspection. Fearing that she would lose custody of her newborn and her five-year-old son, she called CYF and scheduled the home inspection. CYF staff quickly concluded that the children were at no risk of harm but continued their investigation by conducting another home inspection and contacting her children’s pediatrician.
“UPMC and CYF made me feel like an unfit parent,” Ms. Cook said. “I thought they were going to take away my kids.”
Ms. Cook complained to UPMC, but UPMC did not return her phone calls.
“The birth of a child should be a joyous time in a family’s life,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “Instead, Cherell and Deserae faced repeated harassment by county employees, as a result of UPMC violating their privacy, even leading to fear that they could lose custody of their children.”
As a class action lawsuit, a finding in favor of the two women would impact any women who gave birth at UPMC facilities, who were tested for drugs, whose babies tested negative for drugs, and whose drug test results or other medical information were revealed to the Allegheny County Office of Children Youth and Families, since November 2018.
The lawsuit was filed in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Ms. Harrington and Ms. Cook are represented by Margaret Coleman and Timothy O’Brien of the Law Offices of Timothy O’Brien and Sara Rose of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. A copy of the complaint is available at aclupa.org/Harrington.