Public hospitals in New York City have ended the longstanding policy of administering drug tests to pregnant patients without their consent. Advocates argue that the now banned practice leads to unfair investigations and “perpetuates racial disparities in the child welfare system,” reports Gothamist.

This policy shift comes on the heels of the NYC Commission on Human Rights opening an investigation into three private hospitals in an effort to determine whether or not there was proof of racial bias in who is tested for drugs and reported to child welfare services. 

Reports Gothamist:

Under the City Health and Hospitals Corporation’s previous policy, medical staff did not need to provide pregnant patients with any written information on a toxicology test or obtain their signatures to perform one, which led to women reporting that they were tested unknowingly or without their approval.

Health providers have broad discretion in calling in reports of child neglect, and a positive drug test can lead to a suspected case. Once those reports are entered into a statewide system, local agencies like the city’s Administration for Children’s Services are mandated to investigate them.

Lisa Sangoi, co-director and co-founder of advocacy group Movement for Family Power, explained that the practice of drug testing pregnant women or their babies, and then reporting those results to child welfare officials, is rooted in the war on drugs. Drug testing “targets black and brown communities for policing, for surveillance, and for control in a way that white and wealthy people who also use drugs at the same rate are rarely if ever policed,” she told Gothamist. Movement for Family Power submitted a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request for data, which found that hundreds of newborns with positive toxicology tests in NYC are reported to child welfare services every year.

Black and Brown children in New York City account for “87% of reports of child neglect or abuse, even though they represent 23% and 36% of the child population respectively,” Gothamist reports. These gross disparities get even worse as children age through the child welfare system. Close to 56% of New York City children in foster care last year were Black, according to the Administration for Children’s Services, while 5.3% were white.

“We have a collective duty to make sure this government intervention is sought and used only when there is true concern for the safety of a child or imminent risk to a child,” David Hansell, Commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services, said at a City Council hearing last month, according to Gothamist. “[It should not be] used inappropriately or disproportionately, resulting in further marginalization and trauma for families of color.”