Prosecutor fights child welfare agency over drug testing him
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A lawyer who was recently sworn in as district attorney in southwestern Pennsylvania wants the state Supreme Court to rule that county child welfare officials investigating complaints about him do not have legal authority to compel him to take a drug test.
David J. Russo, Greene County’s top prosecutor, has been in a legal battle for more than a year with the Children and Youth Services agency from neighboring Fayette County, which was brought in to investigate three complaints about Russo.
The state Supreme Court took the case in October, granting the Fayette County agency’s request to review whether Superior Court was correct in deciding there was no legal grounds to force Russo to submit to “observable” drug tests. Oral argument in the matter is set for March 11 in Philadelphia.
At the same time that he was successfully running for district attorney last year, Russo was also representing himself in the legal dispute over what he said had become a routine practice in Greene County — forcing people who were the subject of child abuse complaints to produce urine to be tested for drugs.
“I know it was very, very prevalent in my county up until Superior Court had ruled on our case,” Russo, a Republican elected in November, said in a phone interview Monday. “It was routine. I challenged a judge over whether or not he could do this.”
The high court left in place another part of the Superior Court decision, a ruling on Russo’s side that the agency also could not require Russo and his wife to permit its investigators to inspect conditions inside their home.
The first complaint about Russo was made in late October 2018, claiming he appeared to be under the influence inside a government building about two weeks earlier, while he was representing someone before Greene County Children and Youth Services.
The second and third reports followed in November 2018, alleging he had been “completely out of it” in public and that there was “domestic violence in the home,” according to a brief Russo filed last month.
Fayette County Children and Youth Services interviewed all five of Russo’s children while they were at school and were not able to confirm the allegations, according to the Superior Court opinion. The county agency then obtained a court order to send investigators into the Russo family home and require Russo to undergo “observable” urine tests.
“There has been no abuse, neglect or failure to to parent” alleged against Russo or his wife, Russo wrote last month. He said that Fayette County Children and Youth Services admitted “that no abuse or neglect had been alleged against (Russo), only that there were concerns of possible intoxication with a child present.”
Russo has argued the orders violated his constitutional rights and warned that allowing random drug testing of parents without probable cause “will inevitably lead to the forcible extraction of bodily fluids, the incarceration of parents for refusing to comply, or the exile of parents from their children.”
Fayette County Children and Youth Services’ lawyer, Anthony Dedola, said in a November filing that the complaints about Russo amounted to “credible reports from responsible sources.” The sources were not identified.
Dedola said county officials looking into child abuse claims should be able to require drug tests, as can be ordered during child custody disputes.
“The interest of the state in protecting children from parents who may be impaired by drugs to the point where they are incapable of caring for their children, is just as compelling, if not more so, than in custody cases,” Dedola wrote.
Dedola declined to be interviewed because of “privacy concerns on CYS matters generally,” he said Tuesday in an email to The Associated Press.
This story has been corrected to say Superior Court described the urine test as “observable,” not “supervised.”