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How America’s Foster Care System Weaponizes Cannabis Against Society’s Most Vulnerable

cannabis foster
Written by Alexandra Hicks

As far as government entities go, the child welfare and foster system is one of the least understood, but it does hold one of the most invasive powers a state can exercise over its citizens – the power to break families apart and permanently sever bonds between children and their parents. Learn how the foster system weaponizes cannabis against some of the most marginalized people in our society.

Despite having the power to monitor and control families, and forcibly take their children away, the child welfare and foster system is subject to shockingly little oversight. And all to too often, allegations of drug abuse are used to help cement cases against these families. Data vary considerably, but the most commonly cited estimate is that “80% of all foster system cases involve caretaker drug use allegations at some point during the life of the case,” and many times the “drug” they’re referring  to is marijuana.

According to a recently published, 174-page report titled, “How the Foster System Has Become Ground Zero for the U.S. Drug War,” this system also works mainly against low income families, despite statistics from a Gallup poll showing that high income earners abuse substances at rates equal to, and in many cases higher than, working and lower class Americans. There are also very stark racial disparities when it comes to the higher levels of intervention, which black, latinx, and native American children being separated from their families at much higher rates than white children.

So, what is going on here? Are they criminalizing families that maybe just needed a bit of extra help? And how is the child welfare and foster system using cannabis to further their own cause?

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Criminalizing Medical Cannabis Patients

If you live in a state where cannabis is still highly criminalized, the concept of “medical cannabis” really doesn’t exist. Should you be arrested, you’ll find no sympathy from the court, whether you’re using cannabis simply to get stoned or to treat a debilitating health condition. Recent years have brought us numerous infamous cases of children removed from their homes and families over medical cannabis use, and what may come as a surprise to many is that this can happen in legal states too.

In 2014, a 35 -year-old father from Spring Lake, Michigan named Max Lorincz, has his son placed in the state foster system for using legal medical cannabis to treat a medical condition that was having severely negative effects over his quality of life. “The whole thing was a nightmare,” Lorincz recalled, “I didn’t understand how they could take our child away.”

In 2015, Kansas-resident Shonda Banda lost custody of her 11-year-old son for using medical cannabis to treat Chron’s disease. Banda’s son told his drug education program teacher about his mother’s use of cannabis as medicine, which prompted a call to the state foster system. The following year, Kansas state officials took custody of military veteran Raymond Schwab’s five children on suspicion of “child endangerment” because Schwab was using medical cannabis which he purchased legally in Colorado.

If you’re wondering how medicinal cannabis can be criminalized and so strictly enforced in some states, let me reference this announcement that came out recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended that primary care doctors screen their patients for unhealthy drug use.”

For the record, cannabis use is included in the definition of “unhealthy drugs” used by foster system case workers to tear families apart. Tobacco and alcohol are not included in this list, despite how often we see the negative impacts of alcohol on the family unit.

Even Recreational Cannabis Use in Legal States Can Be Problematic

Again, this pattern in foster system involvement is not limited to states like Texas or Indiana where all cannabis use is heavily criminalized. This happens even in legal states like California and Colorado. Healthcare employees, therapists, and social workers are trained to red-flag cannabis use in their patients, especially those with children.

Federal and state laws, passed in the name of child protection, have criminalized the doctor-patient privilege of privacy. Any states interested in receiving federal funds provided through the Child Abuse Prevention Treatment Act (CAPTA) amendments of 2003, 2010, and 2016 can get only that money if they create a reporting system for medical professionals to utilize when they encounter a child impacted by substance abuse, and that includes marijuana use.

That medical provider must also notify a local child protective services (CPS) agency, and ensure that the agency establish a “plan of safe care” for the infant and mother. That “safeguard” has effectively put millions of pregnant people and mothers at risk of being reported to CPS for cannabis use that is perfectly legal. Women of color and those struggling economically are far more likely to be reported and thereby taken into a system that may monitor them for years thereafter.

Now, this isn’t a bad thing. I know many families that have been torn apart by drug use. But I’m talking about hard drugs, like heroin and methamphetamine, even alcohol… but certainly not cannabis. Doctors wouldn’t categorize all wine-drinking parents as alcoholics that can’t take care of their children, so why do they feel the need to do that to cannabis users?

Targeting the Poor

The U.S. foster care system was established in 1935 as a way to identify and monitor families living in poverty who were determined as “undeserving” of financial assistance. While there are some benefits to this system (keeping government money out of the hands of addicts, etc.), ultimately, it criminalizes those living in poverty – because wealthy families, even those with abusing their children, are rarely subjected to the same kind of surveillance.

Today the system isn’t much different, and the kicker is that anyone can call CPS can open a case against someone for virtually any reason. This can throw cannabis-smoking parents in a downward spiral of government monitoring, court dates, fines, and many other near-impossible hoops to jump through.

Should a parent be sent to a drug treatment program, which is required by the foster system, parents are forced to attend classes – on their own dime while missing work – with no indication of when they will be finished and be able to return to a normal life with their children.

Then there’s the problem of consent. Hospitals that serve predominantly low-income populations regularly engage in drug testing of pregnant women and newborns without their consent. If they find evidence of drug use, even cannabis, those test results are reported to child protective services and can result in immediate removal of the baby. And for the record, these are the same drug tests that are so inaccurate they are inadmissible in court, but they’re used in CPS cases to separate families.

I actually had this problem myself, when I had my second son at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California, a legal state need I remind you. After giving birth, the nurse walked in and told me that I had failed my only drug test at my first prenatal appointment, indicating that I had smoked weed BEFORE finding out I was pregnant. Regardless, she proceeded to tell me that because of this, they would need to drug test me again, and if I failed, they would call CPS and not allow me to breastfeed my baby. But they saw no irony in offering me opioid pain medication throughout my entire stay there, which I declined every time.

Racial Disparities

Racial disparities are present throughout most of our government institutions, but they’re especially prevalent in the child welfare system. A report conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that African American children make up more than one-third of children in the American foster care system, despite representing only 15% of the entire child population in the US. To compare, 1 in 17 white children are taken by CPS vs 1 in 9 black children and 1 in 7 Native American children.

Statistics show that women of color are more likely to be reported to (often without reason and based on mere assumptions) child abuse hotlines, and subsequently investigated for “child abuse and neglect”. This makes it much more likely that a woman of color will have her children removed from her care by the state.

In many cases, the system still functions just as it did back in the 1930s. It’s common for “neglect” to be categorized exclusively by the ability to provide financial care; again, criminalizing the poor. And again, cannabis use is often a deciding factor in foster system involvement, especially for women of color. Instead of creating programs that help these families get on their feet, many are quickly plunged in the system where the outcomes are often worse than children who remain with their families.

Causing More Harm than Good

It’s well-known that the child welfare system has many flaws, and this leads to poor living situations and future outcomes for many children who spend longer periods of time in the state care. In one survey of nearly 6,000 people incarcerated in the Kansas prison system, over 20% had spent time in a state foster system as children.

There is also the issue of abuse, which needless to say, can have lasting effects on a person. A John Hopkins University study of a group of foster children in Maryland found that children in foster care are four times more likely to be sexually abused than their peers not in this setting, and children in group homes are 28 times more likely to be abused.

Researchers of a study of investigations of abuse in New Jersey foster homes, concluded that “no assurances can be given” that any foster child in the state is safe. More than half of child sex trafficking victims recovered through FBI raids across the U.S. in 2013 were from foster care or group homes.

This statistic brings to light the failure of the system to address the recurring sexual exploitation of minors while in their protection. Predators immediately recognize that children in foster care are especially accessible to them, because the adults charged with protecting them are not doing so.

A report completed by the New Jersey Office of Child Advocacy included some date that discussed the relationship between the victim and abuser. Out of the child cases studied, “37.4% of perpetrators were institution staff, 36.5% were foster parents, and 20% were relatives of the victim.” The results beg the question: where is the risk of sexual abuse higher, in a dysfunctional home or institutional setting?

Where Is the Oversight? Any Standards?

The answer to this… well, it’s surprisingly minimal. Although tasked with protecting children from abusive and/or negligent parents, the criteria used to determine a parent’s ability to care for their children has never been standardized. So what might seem like a normal act of parenting to one case worker, might be cause for removal in a other agency or state.

Not to mention, the system was designed with the focus of removing children from “problem homes”, rather than rehabilitating the parents and repairing the family structure. The goal is to have as many “saved” children as possible, with saved meaning placed in foster care – and this goal is incentivized by money.

As a matter of fact, the government spends roughly 10 times more on foster care and adoption than programs aimed at reuniting families. This begins at the federal level with the the Federal Foster Care Program (Title IV-E of the Social Security Act), which functions as an open-ended entitlement grant. There is no upper limit to the amount of funding that can be provided for eligible foster children every year. States receive between 50 and 75 cent reimbursements for each dollar spent on daily child care and supervision, administrative costs, training, recruitment, and data collection.

But when it comes to programs that support family reunification, the budget slims considerably. Title IV-B of the Social Security Act governing federal reunification funding is capped, unlike the funds for foster care. So this money comes with a set limit, and a significant portion is not for reunification services at all. A percentage of a Title IV-B funding actually goes toward adoption promotion and marketing.

Final Thoughts

In a system designed to take children away from their families, funded by government money, with very little oversight and virtually no standardization – we need an overhaul. It’s shameful to know that in this day and age, children are still being placed in foster care for their parents’ medical or recreational cannabis use, with double standards for alcoholics and those using pharmaceuticals. This is why it’s so important to legalize cannabis nationwide, so an effective set of standards can be established, to protect both parents and their children from unnecessary government intervention.

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About the author

Alexandra Hicks

Managing editor at Cannadelics and U.S based journalist, helping spread the word about the many benefits of using cannabis and psychedelics.