On September 26, Hollie Sanford of Cleveland, Ohio, gave
birth to a healthy baby girl.
For reasons that are unclear, the hospital tested both
mother and baby for drugs. Both tested
positive – for a byproduct of marijuana.
That’s because Hollie drank marijuana tea to ease the pain of
labor. According to one
of several excellent stories
in the Cleveland Plain Dealer
, Hollie said she took that approach because she
thought it was safer than narcotics or medicines.
The whole thing should have been none of the county child
welfare agency’s business. And you can
bet that had Hollie Sanford been, say, a Junior Leaguer from Chagrin Falls or
Bentleyville it wouldn’t have been. She
never would have been tested and, if somehow she had, Cuyahoga County Children
and Family Services (CFS) would have done exactly what it should have done:
But while news accounts don’t specify their income, Hollie
and her husband appear to be a working class family. And they’re an interracial couple. That’s more than enough to trigger the racial
bias and class bias that permeate American child welfare. (NCCPR President Martin Guggenheim discusses
exactly this sort of double standard in the context of marijuana cases in
this article from The Nation
. And there's more about the double standard, and the harm it causes in this piece from The Huffington Post
So Cuyahoga County went to court to put the family under
“protective supervision.” Your newborn
still can live with you, the County told the Sanfords, so long as you promise
never, ever to use marijuana and let us monitor your life – at a time when that
life already has more than enough stress, what with the arrival of a new
baby. Hollie agreed. As she told the Plain Dealer
: “I said I’d do anything they wanted to get my
All that extra stress poses far more risk to a newborn’s
healthy development than a mom who sometimes uses marijuana tea, or even smokes
But then it all got worse.
The case came before a magistrate - essentially an assistant judge - by the name
of Eleanore Hilow. She took it upon
herself to go far beyond what even CFS wanted – she ordered the child
confiscated from the parents and consigned to foster care. Fortunately, a cousin stepped forward, so at
least the child wasn’t placed with a stranger.
Hollie and her husband had daily visits.
But still more stress was placed on the parents – and most important,
the infant – during a crucial period of parent child bonding.
After Plain Dealer
reporter Rachel Dissell wrote an
excellent story on the case
, the actual judge, Thomas F. O'Malley, overruled his magistrate and
allowed the child to come home – still under protective supervision.
As often happens in situations like this, the Plain Dealer
story prompted others to
come forward. In
a follow-up story
, Dissell wrote:
attorneys and guardians ad litem with cases in Hilow's courtroom told the Plain Dealer she often makes unilateral decisions to
remove children from parents or caregivers, forcing them into the county's
custody without sufficient, or any, evidence being presented during a hearing.
and her judge, Thomas F. O'Malley, drew more appeals than any other pair – 28
out of a total of 120. They also had more full or partial reversals. On cases they decided since 2011, the typical
judge/magistrate pair drew fewer than two reversals. O'Malley and Hilow drew 9.
That was more than a quarter of the roughly 30 reversals for the entire local
juvenile court. The next closest pair had five reversals. More
than once, appeals court judges used unusually direct language in reversing
Hilow's rulings. They did not question her motivations, but, like some lawyers
who have practiced in her court, they said that her rulings exceeded both her
discretion and her authority.
And unfortunately, not all of the bad decisions have been
overturned – at least not yet. Again,
from the story:
decided that a newborn, born with methadone in his system, should be placed in
the emergency custody of the county. A county worker and addiction professional
testified that Dara Gibson and her baby could stay safely in a treatment
center. But Hilow, according to her decision, was skeptical. There was nothing
to prevent Gibson from fleeing the center with the baby, who at only about 2
months old, couldn't fend for himself. He's
now in a foster home.
the egregious conduct of one magistrate should not be allowed to distract
attention from the only slightly less egregious behavior of the Cuyahoga County
child welfare agency. Not only did they
harm this child by ordering around the parents, putting everyone under surveillance,
and dragging the whole matter into court in the first place, they also used up
time, energy and resources that could have been spent finding children in real
But as long as it’s a
hot topic in Cleveland right now, I hope someone asks the current head of
Cuyahoga CFS, Thomas Pristow, why he’s doing this kind of harm to families. Perhaps it would get the agency to, uh, turn over a new leaf.