Young Mother’s Parental Rights Terminated for Smoking Marijuana

Family Defense Center asks Illinois Supreme Court to reverse decision, citing lack of evidence of harm, the shifting status of marijuana and gross racial disparities in child removal rates in Peoria

CHICAGO, August 4, 2016 – In a case that challenges racial disparities in the child welfare system, the Family Defense Center on Thursday filed a petition asking the Illinois Supreme Court to review a lower court decision to terminate all parental rights of a 23-year-old Peoria mother. The mother, who is biracial and identifies as lesbian, was found to be “unfit” and her rights to raise her 6-year-old son were terminated primarily because she used marijuana during a nine-month period in 2013 and 2014.

Torie I. and her lawyers at the Family Defense Center are asking the Illinois Supreme Court to determine that the strict legal requirements for the final and permanent severance of the parent-child relationship have not been satisfied. The Center argues that the State presented no evidence as to how Torie’s marijuana use affected her ability to care for her son or had harmed her son. Torie has admitted to smoking cannabis to calm herself, but never in front of her child.

Racial and sexual orientation bias may have played a significant role in the state’s decision to pursue a termination of parental rights, the petition suggests. The Center cites the child removal rate in Peoria County, which is nearly 8 times greater for African American than for families of other races. Torie’s child was placed in foster care with an unrelated, white pre-adoptive family, even though she had a strong bond with the child. The case has gained the attention and support of prominent organizations, including the NAACP of Peoria; National Advocates for Pregnant Women; Families Organizing for Child Welfare Justice; Reproductive Justice Law Clinic at University of California, Irvine; and the New York University School of Law Family Defense Clinic; the K.L.E.O. Family Life Center, Chicago; and Peoria Proud.

Sadly, the five-year legal battle has kept Torie’s little boy in foster care most of his young life. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, responding to a hotline call, investigated Torie, then 18, and indicated her for child neglect on March 17, 2011, citing Allegation 60, also known as “environment injurious.” This overly broad allegation, which allowed DCFS to unfairly investigate thousands of Illinois parents, such as victims of domestic violence, was declared void by the Illinois Supreme Court in 2013 in the Center’s landmark case Julie Q. v. DCFS.

Once parental rights have been legally terminated, a parent has zero authority to either see their child or make decisions impacting their life. What’s more, Torie is physically incapable of bearing more children, the petition states.

“The child welfare system is riddled with bias in its treatment of African American families and the dissolution of parental rights, as evidenced by the extraordinary disproportionality rates of child removal in Peoria and nationally,” Redleaf said. “It is particularly startling that marijuana use, which is widely used recreationally by white young adults, has been used by Illinois courts to permanently deprive a mother and son of their relationship with each other for the rest of their lives. The Illinois Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on whether marijuana use, absent evidence of harm to the child, can be a ground for declaring a parent ‘unfit’ so that her relationship to her child is forever destroyed.”

Torie herself was removed from a drug-addicted mother and incarcerated father when she was 5 weeks old and adopted at 2 years old by her maternal grandparents. Disapproving of her sexual orientation, her grandmother kicked her out of the house when she became pregnant at age 16. Temporarily homeless though in school and working, Torie persevered and was allowed to return home. She was asked to leave again, she says, after making an effort to restore her relationship with her biological father.

After the hotline call, Torie cooperated with a DCFS safety plan, under which her son went to live with her adoptive parents. In 2012, the court stepped in and Torie went into a court-ordered in-patient drug treatment program in late 2013 and early 2014. However, she relapsed and had positive drug drops for cannabis after her adoptive mother died in 2014. The state began proceedings to terminate her parental rights, which was granted by a Juvenile Court judge in Peoria last December. The court stated only that she had failed to make “reasonable progress” during a nine-month period.

Further muddying the waters is the shifting status of marijuana, the Center contends. In Illinois, medical marijuana is legal, and penalties for possession of small amounts have been reduced to misdemeanors. Studies show white young adults have higher rates of cannabis use than African Americans, but the Center is unaware of any case in which a white parent was punished for marijuana use with the termination of her parental rights.

“This mother and child relationship should be supported and not irrevocably destroyed,” said the Center’s Executive Director Rachel O’Konis Ruttenberg. “Moreover, the fact that Torie relapsed following a traumatic event begs for compassion, not punitive action.”

The petition also asks the high court to review the lower court’s decision to deny Torie’s request for the court to pay the $1,000 fee for a toxicologist/biochemistry expert to examine the tests at issue in the termination of rights proceeding. The Peoria Court should not have denied the fee request because of the high stakes of parental rights terminations and U.S. Supreme Court precedents that respect the constitutional rights at issue in protecting the parent-child relationship, Redleaf said.

Read the In re K.I. petition here.

The Center will host a call to discuss the case on Thursday, August 4, at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time. Email samantha@familydefensecenter.org to receive the conference dial-in information. Sources to include Redleaf and Ruttenberg; Dr. Carl Hart, psychiatrist and authority on substance abuse; attorney Stephanie Ledesma, a child welfare law specialist who can speak to racial disproportionality in the child welfare system; and Suzanne Sellers, founder, Families Organizing for Child Welfare Justice, who can speak from a parent’s perspective.

The Family Defense Center is a non-profit legal advocacy organization whose mission is to advocate justice for families in the child welfare system. More on the Center can be found at familydefensecenter.org. Media contact: Shawn Taylor, Treetop Consulting: tshawntaylor@yahoo.com | 312-371-6260.