New York

Mother Wins $75,000 After New York Took Her Baby Over Marijuana Use

New York City’s child welfare agency agreed to pay $75,000 to a mother from the Bronx who was denied custody of her newborn son after she legally smoked marijuana hours before giving birth.

The woman, Chanetto Rivers, had sued the city in May, claiming that the Administration for Children’s Services had targeted her because she is Black. A.C.S. has long faced criticism for aggressively going after parents for marijuana use, as well as for its treatment of Black families.

Ms. Rivers’s lawyers, the Bronx Defenders, said that her case was the first to hold A.C.S. accountable for violating a provision of New York’s law legalizing marijuana that bars removing a child for a parent’s marijuana use alone. A federal judge signed off last week on the agency’s offer to pay Ms. Rivers.

In August 2021 — five months after legalization — Ms. Rivers smoked marijuana at a family cookout, then started having contractions and went to the hospital to give birth.

According to her lawyers, while she was delivering her baby, identified in court papers as T.W., she was asked if she had consumed drugs or alcohol, and when she said she had smoked, she and T.W. were tested without her consent or knowledge and both tested positive for marijuana.

Two days later, A.C.S. told Ms. Rivers it was opening a neglect case and moved to place T.W. in foster care.

A.C.S. policy states that marijuana in an infant’s system is not grounds for removal without a finding that the baby might be impaired. The agency made no finding of impairment, the suit said. But it took Ms. Rivers nearly a week, multiple trips to court and a judge’s order — over A.C.S.’s objections — to gain custody of T.W. and bring him home from the hospital, BronxCare Health System.

Even then, her lawyers said, A.C.S. made unannounced home visits, including in the middle of the night, for three more months, and made her attend parenting classes and take drug tests.

Her suit argued that A.C.S. pursued Ms. Rivers “not because A.C.S. was trying to protect T.W.” but “because Ms. Rivers is Black.” It said her treatment was part of A.C.S.’s decades-long practice of discriminating against Black families, some of it documented in a 2020 audit in which the agency’s own employees said A.C.S. was racist.

Ms. Rivers had a prior child welfare case that resulted in her losing custody of two older children in 2016, but her lawyers said her history was irrelevant because A.C.S. had already cleared her to regain custody of them when T.W. was born, and family court judges had ruled that the old case did not create a risk to T.W.

Under the terms of the city’s agreement with Ms. Rivers, 34, it does not admit wrongdoing or that she suffered any damages.

But Ms. Rivers’s lead lawyer, Niji Jain, said that sometimes, “actions speak louder than words.”

“You don’t pay somebody $75,000 before any discovery is exchanged at all in the case based on allegations alone unless there is some ‘there’ there,” Ms. Jain added.

The city’s Law Department said in a statement on Thursday that it had “carefully reviewed the case and determined that this settlement was in the best interest of all parties.” A.C.S. said in a statement, “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.” The resolution of the case was first reported by Gothamist.

Ms. Jain said that while Ms. Rivers’s suit was an individual case, it offered “a model for other people who want to fight back” — both by laying out the documented history of disparate treatment of Black families by A.C.S., and by providing a template to challenge family separations by A.C.S. based on marijuana use. Bronx Defenders co-filed the suit with the firm Arnold & Porter.

Ms. Rivers said in a statement released by her lawyers: “I didn’t just bring this lawsuit for myself, but for every Black family that A.C.S. has ripped apart. They know what they did was wrong. And now, they’re on notice.”

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