Caution to New York parents: being caught with a joint might not be a crime in New York these days, but it could still cost you custody of your kids.
The New York Times has a scary story out today about the pattern of neglect charges being brought against parents who are busted with small amounts of marijuana.
The story opens with the sad tale of Penelope Harris, a mom who temporarily lost custody of her son and niece after police found just 10 grams of marijuana in her apartment. That was a small enough amount that no charges were filed. But the state swooped in and took her kids anyway.
In New York, anything under 25 grams of pot is punishable with a $100 ticket, comparable to a traffic fine. It’s not even considered a misdemeanor.
Yet it is often considered grounds for the state to pursue a child neglect case. The NYT writes:
Hundreds of New Yorkers who have been caught with small amounts of marijuana, or who have simply admitted to using it, have become ensnared in civil child neglect cases in recent years, though they did not face even the least of criminal charges, according to city records and defense lawyers. A small number of parents in these cases have even lost custody of their children.
While the state says these cases often involve other issues as well, defense lawyers maintain that the marijuana charges are often the main reason a neglect case is pursued. If other issues come up, they’re added on after the fact, not a reason for the neglect case to have been filed in the first place.
To regain custody of her son, Penelope Harris had to agree to draconian measures that included random drug screenings, unannounced visits by caseworkers, and a commitment not to let her boyfriend (the owner of the pot police found in her apartment) return.
Does anyone really think that smoking a little dope makes you unable to parent? I could do more damage to my parenting abilities with a six-pack of beer than I could with the trivial amount of pot this woman was busted with, but no one’s going to take my kids away because I keep a few cold ones in my fridge.
California, with it’s progressive medical marijuana laws, has made it illegal for child welfare officials to use marijuana possession alone as a reason to bring a neglect case. They must show actual harm to the child, not simple possession by the parents.
New York seems to be dangerously behind the ball on this one. Worse, the NYT notes that these neglect cases are rarely if ever brought against white parents. Whites are twice as likely as blacks or Hispanics to use marijuana in NYC, but the neglect cases nearly all feature parents of color.
I hope the story in the NYT spurs reform in New York’s flawed system. Parents shouldn’t be afraid of losing their children over an infraction so small the police aren’t willing to charge you for it. It’s like having to grapple with child welfare agencies every time you get a speeding ticket, whether or not your kids were in the car.
Photo: mason bryant