Viewpoint: Smoke a Joint, Lose Your Child?

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People caught with small amounts of marijuana in New York State are supposed to receive no more than a $100 fine, the equivalent of a traffic ticket. Instead, in New York City, many such people are being accused of child neglect, even if they are never charged with a drug-related violation. And some have even lost custody of their children.

Hundreds of child welfare investigations have been initiated as a result of marijuana arrests, though the parents who were caught were not charged or convicted of any crime, the New York Times reported Thursday in a front-page story.

Reporter Mosi Secret described the case of a Bronx mother, Penelope Harris, whose home was searched on suspicion of drug dealing. Police found about a third of an ounce of marijuana, which Harris said belonged to her boyfriend for personal use. The police found no evidence of drug sales and Harris, who was taking care of two children at home, denied dealing drugs and tested negative for drug use. Bronx prosecutors did not file charges against her.

But that did not deter the Administration for Children’s Services. Secret wrote:

The police had reported her arrest to the state’s child welfare hot line, and city caseworkers quickly arrived and took the children away.

Her son, then 10, spent more than a week in foster care. Her niece, who was 8 and living with her as a foster child, was placed in another home and not returned by the foster care agency for more than a year. Ms. Harris, 31, had to weather a lengthy child neglect inquiry, though she had no criminal record and had never before been investigated by the child welfare authorities, Ms. Harris and her lawyer said.

“I felt like less of a parent, like I had failed my children,” Ms. Harris said. “It tore me up.”

Child services agreed to return her son if Harris agreed to seek therapy, submit to random drug screens and keep her boyfriend from returning to her home. These conditions were administered despite the fact that there was no evidence that Harris was a repeated drug misuser (which is required by the state to consider a child neglected), no evidence that the boyfriend was addicted, either, and none that anyone was harming Harris’ children in the first place. Indeed, Harris’ case was closed in April with no finding of neglect.

For their part, child welfare authorities defend their practices:

Michael Fagan, a spokesman for the Administration for Children’s Services, said the defense lawyers were offering a simplistic portrayal of these cases.

“Drug use itself is not child abuse or neglect, but it can put children in danger of neglect or abuse,” Mr. Fagan said. “We think the argument that use of cocaine, heroin or marijuana by a parent of young children should not be looked into or should simply be ignored is just plain wrong.”

Hundreds of parents have been investigated by child welfare agencies following marijuana arrests, though, according to lawyers involved, only about a dozen cases of related custody loss are currently on the dockets, the Times reports.

Particularly for young children, however, such removal from the home is traumatic. Research shows that each “transition” from a parent to foster care, or from one foster home to another, increases the odds of later mental health problems, juvenile delinquency, educational failure and, ironically in the case of removal related to drugs, addiction.

Moreover, child psychiatrists are unanimous in saying that loss of custody should be a last resort, even in most cases of genuine abuse and neglect. Providing services to the family to avoid removal should almost always be tried first, even when parents are addicts.

In cases with no evidence of addiction — and in which marijuana use is the only issue that calls a family to the attention of child welfare services — it’s safe to say that custody transfer would be far more likely to harm the child than having a parent who sometimes smokes pot. Harris’ niece had already transitioned at least once from her mother’s home to her aunt’s, and her aunt’s marijuana case added two more moves: she spent more than a year in a foster home before returning to her aunt.

MORE: Study: Marijuana Not Linked With Long Term Cognitive Impairment

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