How Some Alabama Hospitals Quietly Drug Test New Mothers - Without Their Consent
As hundreds of Alabama women face child endangerment charges, hospitals are mostly mum on their testing policies - even with the patients
This story was co-published with AL.com
In Alabama, a positive drug test can have dire repercussions for pregnant women and new mothers. Their newborns can be taken from them. They can lose custody of their other children. They can face lengthy sentences in the most notorious women’s prison in the United States and thousands of dollars in fees and fines.
Yet the hospitals that administer those drug tests — and turn the results over to authorities — are exceedingly reluctant to disclose their policies to the public. In many cases, they test mothers and babies without explicit consent and without warning about the potential consequences, ProPublica and AL.com have found.
According to a review of hundreds of court records, drug testing is ubiquitous in some Alabama counties — sometimes of mothers, sometimes of infants, sometimes both. In some parts of the state, hospitals test on a case-by-case basis, employing criteria that virtually ensure greater scrutiny for poor women.
ProPublica and AL.com began examining hospital drug-testing policies as part of an investigation
into Alabama’s chemical endangerment law
, the country’s toughest law targeting drug use in pregnancy. Since 2006, the law has been used to charge nearly 500 women
with endangering their unborn children. In many cases, law enforcement officials cited hospital-administered drug tests as probable cause for arrest.
Forty-two of the 49 hospitals that deliver babies in Alabama declined to answer an AL.com/ProPublica questionnaire about testing policies, despite repeated requests over several months. Of the seven that did respond, three provided only partial information. Officials at several hospitals declined interview requests to explain why they didn’t want to answer the questionnaires.
In six consent forms obtained from patients and a handful of hospitals — paperwork that patients sign when they check in to deliver their babies — drug testing is specifically mentioned in only two. None indicate that positive results can trigger arrest and prosecution under the Alabama chemical endangerment statute.
“If hospitals are not informing their patients about what their drug-testing policies are, particularly when those results are used to involve law enforcement in their patients’ lives, that is an unconstitutional act,” said Sara Ainsworth, director of legal advocacy for the New York–based National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
Under Alabama law, drug abuse in pregnancy is considered a form of child abuse, and medical providers are “mandatory reporters,” meaning they are required to report positive test results to child welfare authorities, who then must report them to law enforcement. At least 15 other states also treat prenatal drug use as child abuse, but only three — Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee — explicitly allow mothers to be criminally prosecuted.
The potential penalties under Alabama law are especially stiff: one to 10 years in prison if a baby is exposed but suffers no ill effects; 10 to 20 years if a baby shows signs of exposure or harm; and 10 to 99 years if a baby dies.
Rosemary Blackmon, executive vice president of the Alabama Hospital Association
, spoke on behalf of three hospitals that declined to answer the AL.com/ProPublica questionnaire. She said hospitals fear that discussing their drug testing policies could keep pregnant women from… Continue Reading…