Getting caught with a small amount of marijuana shouldn’t result in a life-changing ordeal. But, for many New York parents who have been found with minimal amounts of marijuana, or in some cases merely admitted to using it, these events have resulted in civil child neglect cases. Some have even lost custody of their children.
As you read this, bear in mind: according to New York state law, possession of as much as 25 grams of marijuana is a violation similar to a traffic offense.
According to the New York Times, lawyers say that they routinely defend parents who have never been previously accused of neglect, but whose children have nevertheless been placed in foster care. The parents face little or no criminal charges, but they are being punished in what is arguably a more random and cruel fashion.
In California, where medical marijuana is legal, this wouldn’t happen. There, child welfare agents are required to demonstrate actual harm to the child because of marijuana use in order to bring neglect cases. The result? Fewer cases.
New York seems to be opposite, where black and Latino parents are being hit hardest by child neglect cases; lawyers say that these cases are rarely brought against white parents. Marijuana is used twice as often by whites than blacks or Latinos. It is the most popular illicit drug in New York City, and lawyers who defend parents say that the vast majority of their cases deal with marijuana, rather than other drugs.
Proponents of the child neglect cases argued that often, admitted marijuana use masks other forms of substance abuse. But the parents’ defenders alleged that in many cases, cases are brought because of marijuana use, and then prosecutors search for more substantial evidence of neglect.
To be classified as “neglected,” a child must have a parent who “repeatedly misuses” a drug. But New York law does not distinguish between marijuana or heroin, and it also does not define “misuse.” Parents don’t even need to be caught in the act. If they mention recreational marijuana use in passing to a coworker, that can be grounds for a neglect case.
Even if “neglectful” parents are permitted to retain custody of their children, the finding is still very serious. The NYT explains that neglect findings “prohibit parents from taking jobs around children, like driving a school bus or working in day care, or from being foster care parents or adopting. And they make it easier for Family Court judges to later remove children from their homes.”
A violation for which prosecutors might not even press charges can, thus, drastically alter the trajectory of a parent’s life, not to speak of their children. These cases are just one more reason to differentiate marijuana from other drugs and to make sure that parents aren’t losing their children for a misdemeanor equivalent to a traffic violation.
Photo from The Equinest via flickr.