They should have been among the most joyful days in the lives of Cherell Harrington and her family. But starting just before she gave birth to her third child, late in 2017, the hospital where she gave birth and the child protective services agency in Allegheny County (metropolitan Pittsburgh) brought the worst kind of stress into the family’s life – they effectively threatened the family itself.
Everyone ultimately agreed that Harrington did not abuse or neglect her newborn in any way. Now she is suing the county and the hospital. And it’s not just Cherell Harrington. According to the lawsuit there is a “plan and/or agreement” between the county and the hospital to do this to new mothers.
The practices involved allegedly are so common that attorney Margaret Cook of the Law Offices of Timothy P. O’Brien and lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania are seeking class-action status for their suit. (The ALCU of Pennsylvania’s legal director is a member of NCCPR’s volunteer Board of Directors.)
The hospital claims it just follows state law. But even in Pennsylvania, where legislators take pride in passing ever more draconian laws so they can look tough on child abuse – no matter what that actually does to the children – there is no requirement to report Harrington and others like her to child protective services.
Even if Harrington wins her lawsuit, the nightmare may not end. That’s because all this happened in Pittsburgh, home of the nation’s most advanced, Orwellian experiment in using “predictive analytics” in child welfare.
The algorithm used by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services and its Division of Children, Youth and Families (AC-CYF) doesn’t distinguish between true reports and false reports. So even though there were no grounds to report the mother at all, the mere fact that medical professionals reported her to the child welfare agency will raise the “risk score” for the child if the data are still in the system and anyone phones in some other false report against the parents.
It’s not clear how long such information remains accessible. Depending on how reports are classified and their disposition the information may be available for a year or for decades. And there is a campaign underway to make things even worse. So it’s possible that decades from now, the child himself may be labeled a higher risk for abusing his own children if anyone ever accuses him of abuse or neglect.
It all began with a drug test
We don’t know why Magee-Women’s Hospital, a part of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), decided to test Harrington for drugs. We do know that Harrington is African-American – which makes such invasions of privacy more likely.
Here’s what else we know, according to the lawsuit:
● Harrington never consented to the test.
● The preliminary test came back positive, but only for marijuana.
● Such tests often are unreliable. Later, a more definitive test came back negative.
● The newborn tested negative for any drugs, including marijuana.
● Even were the tests positive, there is no evidence that marijuana use makes one a bad parent. Affluent parents even brag about it in Facebook groups.
Nevertheless, based simply on that one preliminary false positive test, the hospital reported Harrington to Allegheny County CYF. And that false positive test was enough to launch an investigation.
Or was it just a “plan of safe care”?
This case illustrates they’re really the same thing. “Plan of safe care” is a term used in that repository for so much bad child welfare policy, the federal “Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.” Both CAPTA and Pennsylvania law require medical professionals to turn in new mothers to child protective services agencies if there is evidence the infant was “affected” by parental substance use. Officially these are not necessarily child abuse reports. But they are, in all but name.
In the case of Ms. Harrington, according to the lawsuit:
● There were no grounds to turn her in, since the test was a false positive – and her newborn tested negative.
● Allegheny County responded anyway, and the response was identical to a child abuse investigation.
So as you read on, and see what happened to this family, keep in mind that what happened here is exactly the kind of response that the Boston Globe “Spotlight Fellows” seemed to want when they exploited horror stories to demand even tougher enforcement of laws involving substance use and child welfare, and what at least one Pennsylvania seemed to want when she wrote a similar story.
What happened to the Harrington family
According to the lawsuit:
Less than three days after giving birth to her son by caesarean section, an Allegheny County CYF caseworker entered Harrington’s room and told her that whenever the hospital reports any kind of positive drug test, the agency investigates.
Two days after Harrington was discharged, the same caseworker showed up at the family home, inspected it from top to bottom, required Harrington and her husband to answer all sorts of personal questions and even questioned their 11-year-old daughter about her mother’s “use of addictive substances.” The caseworker would go on to question the daughter’s school social worker.
Then Harrington was coerced into a “counseling” session with a drug treatment program and forced to let the program test her for drugs again. If she didn’t, she’d be reported to a judge for “failure to cooperate” and forced to go downtown for drug tests every month.
Harrington was coerced into signing all sorts of release forms – but given no copies of what According to the lawsuit “Ms. Harrington signed the documents because she feared that if she did not comply with [Allegheny County Children, Youth and Families] directives, her children would be removed from her custody.”she signed.
Even after the drug treatment program concluded no treatment was necessary, the harassment continued. The caseworker returned, inspected the home all over again and – again – questioned the Harringtons’ 11-year-old daughter.
Based solely on the false positive drug test the caseworker wrote that Harrington “cannot or will not control [her] behavior” and her “protective capacity” for her children was “diminished.”
A second case
The lawsuit also describes what happened to another African-American mother, Deserae Cook, when she gave birth at another UPMC hospital. Asked upon admission to the hospital if she’d ever used illegal drugs, Cook replied she’d smoked marijuana in the past but stopped when she found out she was pregnant.
The hospital secretly tested her – without her consent -- and the test came back negative, confirming Cook’s account. A drug test on the newborn also came back negative.
Nevertheless, UPMC reported Cook to Allegheny County CYF – and her family, too, was put through a needless, traumatic investigation.
All of this happened in spite of the fact that UPMC settled a lawsuit over the same practices in 2014.
The current lawsuit sums up the routine behavior of UPMC and the Allegheny County Division of Children, Youth and Families (AC-CYF) this way:
UPMC and AC-CYF knew that a new mother’s self-report to a medical professional regarding prior drug use [or a new mother’s ‘unconfirmed positive’ drug test] constituted confidential medical information which UPMC was neither privileged nor legally required to disclose to AC-CYF absent evidence that her newborn was affected by illegal substance abuse or had withdrawal symptoms resulting from prenatal drug exposure.
Nevertheless, in accordance with past practices, policies, and/or agreements between the Defendants, UPMC routinely, and in bad faith, reported this confidential medical information to AC-CYF and AC-CYF routinely accepted and acted on this confidential medical information to conduct unwarranted highly intrusive, humiliating, coercive and/or unconstitutional child abuse investigations of new mothers.
Why would a hospital be so cruel?
Why would a big prestigious hospital inflict so much trauma on families? Perhaps they haven’t thought things through.
UPMC is where Dr. Rachel Berger heads the “Child Advocacy Center.” Berger co-authored a notorious article that formed the basis for an essay urging medical professionals to – literally – think less before reporting child abuse. She also has gone out of her way to minimize the harm of foster care – in an essay co-authored by Erin Dalton, a deputy director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, where she reports to longtime DHS director Marc Cherna.
The fact that it now appears Cherna’s agency has some kind of special “practices, policies, and/or agreements” with Berger’s hospital concerning reports alleging substance use by new mothers is one more indication that Cherna should be deemed to have overstayed his welcome.
The other indication is his role in creating his agency’s dystopian predictive analytics experiment.
The AFST factor
All of this would be bad enough anywhere – but this kind of trauma done to overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite families is actually worse in Pittsburgh. That’s because Pittsburgh is a pioneer in using a “predictive analytics” algorithm whenever a family is the subject of a report alleging child neglect.
There are two versions of the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST). The first version canvasses a vast trove of data (most of it collected on poor people) whenever CYF receives a report alleging child neglect. It then coughs up a “risk score” which helps determine if CYF will investigate the call. (All calls alleging abuse automatically must be investigated. And now, it appears, Cherna and Berger have created another category of calls that must be investigated: All those that are part of some kind of arrangement between their respective institutions.)
So the problem with AFST is not that it affected the initial reports on Harrington and Cook – the problem is what happens next time.
AFST counts reports workers later deem true, and reports they deem to be false. Past reports raise the risk score – period. And if those past reports come from medical professionals, they raise the risk score further.
The amount of time the county’s computers can gain access to such reports does depend in part on whether they are unfounded of not. Unfounded reports are supposed to be expunged after no more than one year and 120 days. So if, in fact, the report was labeled unfounded, the report might no longer be accessible to AFST. But if the report was deemed "substantiated" Harrington and her family remain at risk of being labeled “high risk” and subjected to the whole traumatic process – or much worse – all over again.
And there’s a move afoot to try to persuade the legislature to let counties keep even unfounded reports – perhaps for as long as they feel like it. If that happens, then in the future, the danger to families such as the Harringtons could become vastly worse.
There also is an even more dangerous version of AFST. In this version, Cherna is trying to slap a risk score on every child – at birth. Cherna promises this version will be used only to target “prevention.” But there is no way to stop him or a successor from changing her of his mind in the future.
So imagine what the score would be on a child such as the Harringtons’ infant if that version of AFST had been in effect when that child was born. (In theory, this version is voluntary, but you have to affirmatively opt out and, as we’ve seen, that’s a risk families actually under investigation don’t dare take.)
The reality of Pittsburgh child welfare under the rule of Marc Cherna was best summed up by Deserae Cook in an interview with the Associated Press: She said her experience with the hospital and with Cherna’s agency
“…was like a kick in the stomach. What’s the reasoning? It felt embarrassing and humiliating. It felt like they were trying to find something, trying to take our child away.”