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The broader question is: what should happen when there are mere allegations that a child has been neglected, abused, or exposed to an environment where drugs or alcohol are present? The knee-jerk answer is simple: get the district attorney involved, punish the parent(s) and relocate the kids. But the solution is not so simple. Many parents who deeply love their children also struggle with addiction.
In most instances, a parent may need counseling of some sort in lieu of the state bursting through their front door and stripping them of their children. Some cases are easier to decide than others. The parent whose daily intoxication allows young children to wander the streets requires special attention, of course. But in many other less obvious cases of neglect, it may not be realistic to completely demonize a parent at the mere suggestion of drug use or neglect.
Pennsylvania has relied heavily on county entities called CYS, which stands for Children and Youth Services. (In Allegheny County, it’s called Children and Youth Families, or CYF.) The job of CYS is not easy. CYS needs to investigate to get facts from parents who are understandably reluctant to be forthright. Hence, CYS needs to draw certain inference from little facts, in many instances. A recent story in the news highlights the difficulties in this area.
The case involved a new mother in New Castle, Pennsylvania, who failed a drug test given at a Lawrence County Hospital. This prompted authorities in Lawrence County to seize her newborn baby, and the mother intends to file a civil rights law suit. But the mother has an interesting explanation for her failure of the test.
Rich Lord, of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, reported:
“Elizabeth Mort and Alex Rodriguez, parents of Isabella Rodriguez, have said that poppy seeds on a Dunkin Donuts everything bagel caused a false positive on an April drug test conducted by Jameson Hospital in New Castle. Poppy seeds contain opiates that are sometimes mistaken for drugs, although there are blood tests that can discern between compounds in the seeds and illegal substances.
The test result prompted Lawrence County Children and Youth Services to remove Isabella from her home the day after her discharge from the hospital, and put her in protective custody for five days.
The ACLU and attorney Patricia Dodge, of Meyer, Unkovic & Scott, plan to represent Ms. Mort in suing both the county and the hospital, according to a news release by the ACLU. Her attorneys declined to be interviewed, but a copy of the complaint to be filed today indicated that they will seek a finding that authorities need more evidence than a single drug test to remove an infant from its parents.
The complaint says the county agency is “removing newborns without any reasonable suspicion that they have been abused or are in imminent danger of abuse, in violation of parents’ fundamental constitutional rights, and Jameson is aiding and abetting that constitutional violation” by conducting tests that aren’t medically necessary.
Lawrence County Commission Chairman Steve Craig said that Children and Youth Services acted properly based on the information provided by the hospital.
“When [hospital employees] say she failed a drug test, what do you do, say, ‘Oh, well, we understand she ate a bagel?’ ” said Mr. Craig. He added that Ms. Mort told county case workers that she had a history of drug use, and called the claim that a bagel was to blame “an allegation. There’s nothing to back that up in this case.”
The complaint says Ms. Mort did not use illegal drugs while pregnant. She has no criminal record in Pennsylvania.”
To read more, go to: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10301/1098650-54.stm
Let’s assume that CYS got it wrong in this instance; namely, the mother had no prior record and there was no other evidence of neglect or drug use on her part in the past. Does this mean CYS should relax its vigilance any?
The truth is, there is no quick and easy solution to the problem of suspected abuse. Modern society does not have any easy answer. At the gut-wrenching suggestion of abuse, it’s tempting to cast a wide net and simply demonize every person and entity involved: the parents, school, teaches, and entities such as CYS that often fail to properly investigate the “real” instances of neglect.
Three things will never change: (1) abusive parents will never be totally forthright about the harm they are doing to young children (2) CYS will overstep its bounds in the future and cause pain to innocent families, and (3) we will always need investigative bodies like CYS to have authority to make decisions that help improve the lives of innocent children.
The system will never be perfect. But an alert public, good reporting, and a constant effort by CYS to improve its procedures will help reduce the number of cases where CYS over steps it bounds in the future.
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