Monday, November 30, 2015

In Cleveland, child welfare goes to pot

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: Nothing.

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 daughter home.”

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 a joint.

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: 
Several 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.
 Then Dissell dug further, and found this
Hilow 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: 
Hilow 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.
But 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 danger.

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.