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NYC children's services agency to settle with parent allegedly targeted for marijuana, race

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The Administration for Children’s Services has agreed to a first-of-its-kind judgment after a parent accused the agency of targeting her for marijuana use and taking her newborn son — months after recreational use was legalized statewide, according to the parent's lawyer and court records.

The woman, Chanetto Rivers, will receive more than $75,000 and payment for legal fees after she accused New York City and its child welfare agency of separating her from her son when he and Rivers tested positive for marijuana in August 2021.

Rivers, who is Black, accused ACS in a lawsuit filed in May of pursuing her for marijuana use because of her race, citing a history of similar complaints against the agency that preceded its alleged violation of state law.

Rivers’ proceedings with ACS concerning her son, identified in federal court papers as TW, came months after New York state legalized marijuana use in March 2021.

“Even after a judge required ACS to reunite Ms. Rivers with her baby, ACS continued to subject Ms. Rivers to needless court proceedings and a litany of conditions that interfered with her parenting of TW for months, while the unlawful removal of her baby was ratified by senior ACS leadership,” the complaint reads. “This was not because ACS was trying to protect TW; this was because Ms. Rivers is Black.”

The previously unreported judgment, signed by a federal judge on Aug. 30, is believed by attorneys and advocates to be the first case of its kind since New York state legalized recreational marijuana use in March 2021, though similar claims were made long before then.

A Gothamist investigation last year showed that despite statewide legalization and promises of reform, the agency continued to cite parents’ marijuana use in proceedings to separate them from their children. All of the parents who described similar encounters with the agency were Black.

ACS spokesperson Stephanie Gendell said the state and city policy was that “marijuana is not in and of itself a basis” for bringing allegations of neglect against a parent.

“In all of our cases, including those with substance misuse allegations, we assess child safety on a case-by-case basis, looking at actual or potential harm to a child and the parent’s capacity to care for the child,” a statement from Gendell reads in part.

The city Law Department did not return a request for comment.

Despite promises of reform, the agency has been plagued by accusations of racial bias deeply rooted within the institution that often result in the separation of Black families who bear the brunt of enforcement in the child welfare system.

“I didn’t just bring this lawsuit for myself, but for every Black family that ACS has ripped apart,” Rivers said in a statement through her attorney.

In her lawsuit, Rivers claimed that hospital staff tested her for drugs without her consent in August 2021, when she was “overwhelmed with happiness and drained by the birth” of her son, TW.

Rivers and her newborn tested positive for marijuana, and the agency told hospital staff to hold the child “indefinitely,” according to the federal lawsuit.

A family court judge who reunited them days later said evidence presented by the agency did not meet the legal bar to demonstrate an imminent risk of harm to her newborn — including claims from a hospital worker that she smoked marijuana in the hospital room or her previous experience with the child welfare system, when her older children were living with their grandmother.

A court-ordered investigation report related to the custody of her older children, which was released two months before the birth of her son TW, said there was “no basis to believe that [Ms. Rivers] misuses drugs or alcohol,” which the federal lawsuit directly refers to.

After Rivers gave birth to TW, neither one “received any treatment or medical counseling from the hospital related to the marijuana test results,” the complaint reads.

Though Rivers was reunited with her son, ACS continued to pursue its case against her, subjecting her and TW to unannounced visits and other disruptions before voluntarily withdrawing its neglect petition in December 2021, according to the suit. Rivers also did not regain custody of her two older children until January of this year, after proceedings related to TW “interrupted and delayed her reunification with her older children,” her complaint reads.

“Defendants targeted Ms. Rivers because of her race and acted to separate Ms. Rivers from her baby based solely on marijuana use, which was a violation of state law,” the complaint reads.

Niji Jain, who represented Rivers in her lawsuit and serves as director of the Bronx Defenders’ Impact Litigation Practice, said the judgment enforces a provision of the law dictating that child welfare agencies like ACS “cannot separate a family based on marijuana use alone.”

“We hope this case will serve as a model for other people who want to fight back against ACS and its racist treatment of New York City’s families and their racialized use of marijuana and drug testing, more generally, against parents of color,” Jain said.

Jain was a lead attorney for Rivers, who along with the Bronx Defenders was also represented pro bono by attorneys at Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP, a private law firm.

Still, Jain conceded the agreement meant that documents from ACS that attorneys hoped to obtain through discovery and introduce publicly through a trial would not be brought to light. Advocates and lawyers have long pointed to transparency issues with the agency, and ACS has not admitted wrongdoing as a result of the judgment.

“For years, ACS has chosen to operate in secrecy and hide from accountability when it comes to the data, the stories, the widely known fact that there is a racial bias problem within the agency,” Jain said. “Rather than facing the parents and families who they police and surveil and separate every day, every year, they’re choosing a different path.”

Joyce McMillan, who as founder and executive director of JMacForFamilies has long advocated for parents in the child welfare system, said it was hard to believe that anything would change after the judgment.

“I hope that change comes out of this, but I’m not convinced that it will,” McMillan said. But she added a success like this — for Rivers, and families like hers — was long overdue.

“What I hope for the family is freedom,” she said. “Freedom to be who you are and do the things that you enjoy, without being punished by a system that doesn’t have your best interests.”

This story has been updated with more attorney information.



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