NYC Pays Settlement to Mom Separated from Newborn for Cannabis Use

A settlement has been reached between the City of New York’s child welfare arm and a mother who had her baby taken from her just days after his birth.

According to an article in the New York Daily News, The New York Administration for Children’s Services will pay Chanetto Rivers, who says she was subjected to a drug test without her consent, a settlement of $75K plus attorney fees.

Rivers’ case first made headlines in May when the New York Times ran a story entitled “She Smoked Weed Legally, Then Gave Birth. New York Took Her Baby,” and that does indeed appear to be an apt description as Rivers gave birth to her baby boy in August of 2021, five months after New York legalized cannabis for recreational purposes.

The new laws did not stop ACS from taking custody of Rivers’ baby just two days after his birth. Rivers’ lawsuit against ACS argued that the organization’s own policy  published in 2019 even before legalization forbids separating a mother and child for cannabis use alone.

“Positive marijuana toxicology of an infant or the mother at the time of birth is not sufficient, in and of itself, to support a determination that the child is maltreated, nor is such evidence alone sufficient for ACS to take protective custody of (remove) a child or file a case in Family Court,” – Excerpt taken from “ACS Policy and Practice on Cases Involving Marijuana Use by Patients.”

The Daily News article said that the whole situation began when Rivers told her doctors and nurses she had consumed cannabis at a family gathering just hours before arriving at the hospital. A drug test was allegedly taken without Rivers’ consent, the results of which came back positive for cannabis both in Rivers and her baby. Two days later, an order was issued by ACS to the hospital to retain custody of the baby and not release him to Rivers.

“Just days postpartum, [Rivers] had to travel in physical pain every day, to go to the hospital to be able to visit with her baby, because they wouldn’t let them be together,” said Niji Jain to the Imprint. Jain was lead counsel in the case and is director of the Impact Litigation Practice at Bronx Defenders.

In total the baby was separated from Rivers for one week, during the course of which she had to travel to and from the hospital so she could see the child while she was simultaneously traveling to and from court in an attempt to get a judge to intervene, which is exactly what happened. A judge granted an emergency order and Rivers regained custody of her son, only to face several more months of inquiries, home visits, drug tests and state-mandated anger management and parenting courses. RIvers’ lawsuit alleged she was singled out and discriminated against due to her race. 

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

A spokesperson for ACS gave a statement on the matter after the conclusion of the lawsuit, saying they evaluate each case individually but reiterating that cannabis use alone does not necessarily mean the child is being harmed.

“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 spokesperson said in a statement. “State and city policy is that a parent’s use of marijuana is not in and of itself a basis for indicating a report or filing a neglect case. This means that a case should not be indicated solely because a parent is using marijuana, but instead a child protective specialist should assess the impact, if any, on the safety and well-being of the child.”

Outside of the settlement she received, Rivers’ case is not unique. Substance abuse and cannabis use are regularly used as justification to remove newborns from their mother’s custody, and a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in April of this year found that Black mothers were disproportionately more likely to receive drug testing at birth than white mothers, 2.2% more likely to be exact. 

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