Class War: Why Poor Parents Are More Likely to Get Busted for Pot

Low-income parents who smoke pot live with the well-founded fear that they could lose their children to the foster care system.

Photo Credit: Farsh/ Shutterstock.com

Recently, theNew York Times published an op-ed by an art dealer and father from San Francisco titled “Pot for Parents.” It was just the latest of a growing number of pieces (Jezebel.com, NY Post, Huffingtonpost.com and Phillymag.com) published recently espousing the benefits of marijuana use for parents. These pro-pot missives share a carefree and cavalier tone, portraying marijuana use as an upscale diversion that ameliorates stress and leads to more patient and creative parenting. The “best part” of marijuana use, the “Pot for Parents” author writes, “is an amazing off-label benefit I call Parental Attention Surplus Syndrome” -- the ability to perform obligatory parental duties with genuine enthusiasm after using marijuana.

Whatever benefits marijuana use may or may not have for parenting, to those of us who represent parents in New York City’s Family Courts, these articles only highlight a daily reality: that when it comes to drug use, there are very different rules for poor parents, and particularly poor parents of color. The disproportionate and devastating impact of the drug war on poor communities of color, in terms of criminal arrests and prosecutions, has been well documented. What has largely gone unreported is the extent to which countless low-income parents in New York City and across the country live with the fear – a fear clearly not shared by the well-heeled author of “Pot for Parents” – that they could lose their children to the foster care system if they were as brazen about their own pot smoking. 

These fears are well founded. For poor parents in New York, suspicion of marijuana use will often trigger a visit from the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), and an intrusive inspection of their homes, bedrooms and cupboards. The municipal caseworker, untrained in social work or child psychology, will interrogate their children, asking questions about the intimate minutiae of all aspects of family life without background or context, and require a drug test. If the parent refuses a drug test or tests positive for marijuana, she will be asked to attend intensive drug treatment lasting up to 18 months, usually at taxpayers’ expense, even for casual or infrequent marijuana use. If the parent refuses to attend treatment, ACS will file a petition charging the parent with child neglect, regardless of whether there is any evidence that the marijuana use has had a negative effect on parenting.  

Contrary to the ACS position, research actually suggests that there is no express link between marijuana use on its own and child neglect. In one 13-year study at Columbia University, researchers found that even during periods of marijuana-induced intoxication, people are able to engage in appropriate social behaviors and even respond to emergencies. A second peer-reviewed study sought to determine whether drug use -- including harder drugs -- causes or is associated with increased risks of abuse and neglect. The researchers could not find any such association.  

Despite a lack of evidence of any actual harm, these cases will nonetheless wind their way through protracted and torturous court processes. Parents will be drug-tested again and again, ordered to attend services, and threatened with the removal of their children until they test negative. If they fail to comply with mandated services or test positive for marijuana during the proceedings, the court can remove their children and place them with strangers.  

To say that this process weighs heavily on a family’s day-to-day functioning is an understatement. Cases frequently linger in the court system for months or sometimes years. Parents are required to open their homes up to an ever-changing line-up of caseworkers who come knocking at the dinner hour, or worse, past bedtime. And even if the legal case is ultimately dismissed, the parent’s name will likely remain on a state-wide registry of people who have maltreated children until the parent’s youngest child turns 28 years old, a stigma that will foreclose numerous job opportunities and disadvantage the parent at every turn in future child-related court proceedings.

We know that substance use cuts across socioeconomic and racial lines. National studies show that 22.5 million Americans – nearly 9% of the population – say they regularly use drugs such as marijuana and studies consistently show that marijuana use is heaviest among whites. Yet it is poor parents of color who overwhelmingly shoulder the burden of a dysfunctional and broken child welfare system. Indeed, despite higher rates of illegal drug use by white women during pregnancy, African American women are 10 times more likely to be reported to child welfare authorities for testing positive for an illegal drug at the birth of their child. 

The child welfare system’s treatment of substance-using parents is one of the clearest examples of the double standard that exists for rich and poor parents in this country. In one America, parents risk nothing more than the passive disapproval of peers whose tolerance of parental palliatives stops at a legal glass of Chardonnay at dinnertime. In the other America, families risk needless and costly governmental intrusion, court-directed scrutiny of their parenting abilities, and in many cases, the permanent disruption of their families.

Our courts regularly mete out draconian punishments to poor parents for behavior that would elicit nothing worse than a disapproving glance in more well-to-do circles. ACS perpetuates this double-standard unabated – without any support for its position – causing more short- and long-term harm to children than a little “pot for parents” ever could.

Emma S. Ketteringham is Managing Attorney at the Bronx Defenders, Family Defense Practice, and the former director of legal advocacy at National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

Mary Anne Mendenhall is Staff Attorney at the Bronx Defenders, Family Defense Practice. 

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