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Two days before Christmas, an appellate court in New Jersey gave one Garden state mother the best possible gift; a panel headed by Honorable Carmen Alvarez ruled that not only were verbal admissions about possible cannabis use insufficient evidence for an emergency removal order of an infant child but that the state failed to provide any evidence that simply using cannabis constituted child abuse or neglect. While at first glance, this simply appears to be a case of the courts using common sense, in reality it is a major departure from the common practices of the family court system that have existed for decades.
The unnamed 18-year-old mother (R.W.), who became the defendant in this case, was arrested for a violation of her parole in March of 2011. Shortly thereafter, she and her daughter were placed in the state’s Capable Adolescent Mothers (CAM) Program. R.W. naively believed that speaking honestly with the CAM worker was the best way to handle the situation, and she allegedly admitted to cannabis use while caring for her daughter. This was passed along the chain of command, and an emergency order for R.W.’s daughter’s removal was issued.
That story is one that plays out regularly across the nation. Because there are no national reporting requirements for child welfare agencies, it is impossible to know exactly how many children are removed from parental custody solely for cannabis, but anecdotal information indicates that they represent a not insignificant percentage of children removed from their homes. Thankfully, in this case, R.W. decided she was going to fight for her daughter. Even more thankfully, her appeal landed in front of a reasonable panel.
Judge Alvarez and the appellate panel decided, after reviewing the case, that a CAM worker’s verbal testimony to a superior about R.W.’s alleged cannabis confession should not have been admissible, as the original judge would not be able to assess the trustworthiness of this statement as anything other than hearsay. Moreover, they ruled that simply violating parole, an act which could leave R.W.’s daughter without parental care if R.W. was incarcerated, was not an act of abuse or neglect.
Most importantly, the review panel also ruled that using cannabis while caring for a child does not inherently create a situation where the child is in imminent danger and needs to be removed from parental custody. They indicated that the state failed to provide any documentation that cannabis use by parents has a deleterious effect on children in their custody.
While this is only one specific case and will not impact the broader practice of enforcing cannabis prohibition at the criminal and family court levels, it certainly sets a positive precedent for otherwise excellent and loving parents caught up in the legal system over their cannabis use. Hopefully, this decision will impact how lower courts in New Jersey process custody issues involving cannabis, and hopefully that rational policy will influence judges and lawmakers in other states as well.
For previous Ladybud articles about Child Protective Services and cannabis, click here.
Photo Credit: PublicDomainPictures under public domain via Pixabay