Saturday, May 28, 2022

Families Continue to Be "Torn Apart" By Parents' Marijuana Use

"The child welfare system operates surprisingly like its criminal counterpart. It is a $10 billion apparatus that monitors, controls and punishes families in the same Black communities systematically subjugated by police and prisons," writes Professor Dorothy Roberts in an In These Times excerpt of her new book, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World. 

Prof. Roberts continues: 

State-level child protective services agencies investigate the families of 3.5 million children every year, with one in three children nationwide subject to investigation by the time they reach 18. Most Black children (54%) experience an investigation from child protective services (CPS) at some point while growing up. [For white children, it's 28.2%.]

Every year, CPS removes about 500,000 children from their homes—half though judicial proceedings and half through informal "safety plans." More than one in 10 Black and Native children in America will be forcibly separated from their parents and placed in foster care by their 18th birthday. 

In California, a pending bill, AB 2595 by Los Angeles Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, would require CPS to update its directives to instruct case workers to treat marijuana use by parents in the same way they do alcohol or prescription drugs. It is sponsored by the LA Dependency Lawyers, who represent approximately 20,000 parents on a daily basis. Attorney Brooke Huley of LADL, who testified for AB 2595, roughly estimates based on her 10 years' experience that at least 40% of those parents have had their custodial rights abridged in some form as a result of mere use of cannabis. 

"That would mean that about 8,000 of our current clients on any given day have been negatively impacted," Huley said, adding, "Approximately 20% of our clients have had their children removed or kept from their care as a result of cannabis use." (It's hard to pinpoint data due to confidentiality requirements for family courts.)

Mandatory Reporting and Data "Risk Assessment" Technologies

"All it takes is a phone call from an anonymous tipster to a hotline operator about a vague suspicion to launch a life-altering government investigation. Based on vague child neglect laws, investigators can interpret being poor—lack of food, insecure housing, inadequate medication care—as evidence of parental unfitness," Roberts writes, continuing:  

Family policing relies on an expansive network of information sharing that spans the school, healthcare public assistance and law enforcement systems. By federal edict, every state must identify people who work in professions that put them in contact with children—such as teachers, healthcare providers, social services staff and daycare workers—and require them to report suspected child abuse and neglect to government authorities....some states have passed "universal" reporting legislation that requires all residents, with few exceptions, to convey suspicions to the state. Mandated reporting drives parents away from the very service providers most likely to support them....

Some of the national largest child welfare departments—in California, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Texas—are using computerized risk assessment technologies to police families, eating up budgets that could be used to provide material resources that families need.  

IBM advertises its "Watson" data system for child welfare with a wholesome-looking white mother and child; SAS has a similar system, as does Deliotte. California's Governor Gavin Newsom just moved to earmark $108 million for their  Department of Social Services to "continue design, development, and implementation activities for the Child Welfare Services—California Automated Response and Engagement System (CARES) project....a modern technology application that aids child welfare stakeholders in assuring the safety and well-being of children at risk of abuse and neglect." Newsom is pushing for "CARE Courts" that will force the mentally ill into treatment. (ACLU is "keeping an open mind" about the proposal.)

One fears that, just as truck drivers with positive marijuana tests are being taken off the road by the thousands due to a new national "clearinghouse" of drug-testing data, parents will have their marijuana use as a permanent black mark of the type that just became an issue for the courts in Arizona


Marijuana-Using Parents and the Racial Divide

Roberts writes in her book that Black parents who use marijuana are more likely to be judged unfairly by the CPS system than are white parents, who are able to celebrate their marijuana use in the media: 

Even as some states are liberalizing their drug laws, including legalizing marijuana use and allowing its sale, child protective authorities continue to treat drugs as a reason to tear families apart. It is widely acknowledged today that the war on drugs has been a war on Black people, helping to drive the explosion of the prison population over the last forty years. The discriminatory impact of the child welfare system's drug policy is similar. Although drug use has become a ubiquitous excuse for investigating families, CPS directs its drug surveillance disproportionately at Black communities.

"It's only specific people for whom using marijuana while being a parent is deemed not appropriate," says Miriam Mack, an attorney with the Bronx Defenders. "And that is Black and Brown people." Most of us are well aware of wealthy white friends, neighbors, or celebrities who are parents yet make no attempt to hide their habit of smoking marijuana or using other mind-altering substances. They have no reason to fear a knock on their door by CPS caseworkers coming to investigate their homes. 

“'Concerns' of cannabis use are OFTEN a pretext for disrupting the custodial rights of black and brown families," Huley wrote in an email to me (emphasis hers). "Indeed, the whole family regulation/policing system is designed to oppress these families based on their race and socioeconomic status, yet somehow agencies and children’s attorneys continue to convince the courts that they are 'protecting children.'”

Abolition and Reimagining Needed

Roberts, who also wrote a book titled Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare in 2002, has been involved in various reform efforts since then, including serving on a panel to reform the CPS system in Washington State, and has come to the conclusion that "its purpose is really to surveil and monitor and control," she told WYPR Radio with Tom Hall in April. 

CPS conducts home searches, usually without a warrant, and continues to monitor families for years, using modern surveillance technologies and working hand-in-hand with police, she said. To do so, the state doesn't have to convict parents of a crime, it only needs to accuse them, usually of the nebulously defined neglect. "It's supposedly benevolent arm of the regime, but it ends up serving as a pipeline especially for black children into the juvenile justice system and prisons," she said. We must ask, "Does it really operate on a system of offering families care and support, or punishing them, often by terminating the rights of parents and children to maintain a relationship?" 

She argues in her new book for no less than the abolition of the current CPS system to be replaced by "a radically reimagined approach that can actually serve families and keep children safe....The only way to stop the destruction caused by family policing is to stop policing families."
ADDENDA: A blockbuster report on reparations from California starts with the state's enforcement of the fugitive slave act, baring blacks from testifying in trials against whites,  allowing segregation of public schools, excluding blacks from the Homestead Act and allowing them to be forced out of white neighborhoods in healthier places, ending up with the racist War on Drugs. “The criminalization of African Americans through the ‘War on Drugs’ also contributed to increasing numbers of Black children being removed from families and placed into the foster care system, as Black men in particular were disproportionately arrested for minor crimes, breaking apart families and often leaving children in the care of extended relatives or strangers,” the report says.

Prof. Roberts was a keynote speaker for the 4/27/22 Drug Policy Alliance event: Drug War Dragnet: Surveillance, Criminalization & Freedom from the Drug War. 

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