Wednesday, October 16, 2019

CAPTA strikes again: Pennsylvania makes sure it conforms to an odious federal law -- and promptly begins harassing families where moms use legally-prescribed medical marijuana

Last year, the Pennsylvania Legislature threw one of its periodic collective fits of mass hysteria and demagoguery over child abuse.  The lawmakers made even more draconian its state law concerning newborns “affected” by parental substance use. 

The old law, which was bad enough, required hospitals to report to authorities any mother whose alleged use of an illegal substance “affected” the newborn.  Now it’s legal substances as well.  The change was cheered on by a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who sank to “crack baby journalism.” 

Meanwhile, the legislature also legalized medical marijuana.  I’ll bet you’ll never guess where this is going.

Meet Shanelle Dates.  As the Wilkes Barre Times Leader explains in this story, she was prescribed marijuana while pregnant in order to deal with “several gastrointestinal conditions, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. The cannabis also eliminated her need for an antidepressant, she said.”

The marijuana replaced a toxic cocktail of prescription drugs which actually could have harmed her fetus, according to her gastroenterologist. 

Doctor after doctor signed off, assuring Dates she was doing the right thing. 

Had Dates been white and affluent there would, of course, be no issue. Such moms can smoke pot with impunity – they can even brag about it on Facebook.

But, as you’ve probably guessed even without clicking the link to the Times Leader story, Ms. Dates is neither. 

Even nonwhite mothers using medical marijuana might have been spared the trauma to themselves and their children of a child abuse investigation under the old Pennsylvania law. According to the Times Leader, that law specifically said hospitals did not have to report mothers when a mother “was under the care of a prescribing medical professional and complying with that professional’s prescription directions.”  (They still had the option to report, but at least it wasn’t a requirement.)

But Pennsylvania lawmakers have shown over and over again that they’d much rather posture about supposedly “cracking down on child abuse” than actually do anything to make children safer.  So they amended the law – exposing children to the needless trauma of child abuse investigations, and in the process making all children less safe.  The details on how and why the change compromises child safety are in this previous post.

This is almost certainly why Dates was investigated.  Her children were not removed, but children have been taken in other medical marijuana cases, according to Sabrina Smith, who runs a support group for medical marijuana users in Pennsylvania.  And harassment of poor parents who smoke pot is common across the country.

Conforming to CAPTA

When it comes to state laws making life harder for children and families, Pennsylvania is not alone. In fact, the change in Pennsylvania law brings it into conformity with the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, an odious federal law that, with each new iteration, ratchets up the harm done to children.

In that earlier post I discussed how the specific provisions about drug use by pregnant women got into the law:

The [Philadelphia Inquirer] story cites the former Pennsylvania congressman James Greenwood, who sponsored amendments to the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act requiring reporting all mothers of infants “affected” by prenatal drug exposure to child protective services so they can develop a “plan of safe care” for each child. (If states choose to take a wiser approach and not blindly follow the CAPTA mandate, they only risk losing a relatively small amount of federal money.)
The story notes how Greenwood stressed that 
the goal is to help families, not target struggling women.  “In crafting the federal law, I never envisioned that the ‘referral’ from a health care provider was the same as a child abuse report,” said Greenwood, a former child protection caseworker.
 This is, at best, hopelessly naïve. When a doctor picks up a phone and calls the agency that investigates child abuse reports to report that a mother’s newborn is “affected” by her drug use, you may be sure the agency that investigates child abuse reports will treat it as a child abuse report, and act accordingly.

Turns out I was being too optimistic. 

In Pennsylvania calls alleging abuse are taken by a statewide hotline and are then referred to county child protective services agencies.  But the Times Leader stories make clear that the state implemented the change in Pennsylvania so incompetently that there is, apparently, no way for the county agency receiving the report to know if it’s a formal, official “child abuse” report or a not-quite-as-official “here’s a heads-up about a drug-using mom” report.

But don’t expect the Pennsylvania Legislature to fix its latest blunder anytime soon.  Pennsylvania lawmakers can’t seem to think past the next press release.