GRAHAM: Family court system needs serious adjustment from biases


Column: Considerations of Crime

This past weekend, I had an Uber driver chatting with me about the upcoming generation and how parents should be communicating with their children. 

She told me a story about her kids. One time, she explained, she was in a Walmart with her son, who started acting up. He was throwing a tantrum in the store and causing a huge scene. She took him into the bathroom and gave him a spank. 

Regardless of your opinion on spanking children, the following should be appalling.

Not that it should matter in any way, but this Uber driver, Paulina, is a Black woman and was living in Atlanta, Georgia, at the time. When another woman saw her spank her son (just once on his rear), she called the police. 

Their first questions? Instead of asking about the situation, or any other reasonable first questions, the police asked her where the father was, followed by an inquiry into her age. After having been abused by the father of her son, she had broken up with him and prevented him from seeing their son. 

She was 19 years old at the time of the incident, her son 3 years old. They were living with Paulina’s mother, and though life was not necessarily easy for them, they were doing just fine. She had finished high school, and is now currently working multiple jobs to support herself and her son. 

Using a minimal — if that  —  infraction as an excuse to raise questions about a woman’s parenting ability is a greater spread issue than is apparent. Though some may believe spanking a child is abuse, it is doubtful that the police would have been called if this woman was older, white or with her husband. 

This is not an isolated issue, nor is it regional. This is particularly pertinent in Bronx County Family Court.

Despite its decriminalization in the state of New York, the use of cannabis in Black families is policed in a manner that forces families to lose jobs, or even their children, as a result of family court verdicts. As highlighted in The Appeal, “white parents in more affluent ZIP codes also use cannabis with virtually no risk of state intervention, (yet) Black parents are subject to heightened surveillance and punishment.” 

Take the story of Ms. D, a single mother of two. She occasionally used cannabis after its decriminalization, and was sure to do so only when her children were not present. Regardless of the legal nature of her actions, she was brought into court, which mandated that she must attend a daily drug treatment program in order to keep her children in her home. 

She complied, and was forced to quit her two jobs in order to address the “substance use disorder” that she did not have. This disrupted her income and her ability to support her children, placing her children in more harm than they had been in prior to the court hearing. 

One study tracked cases involving family court and the separation of children from parents of color. It found that children of color are 6.2 times more likely to be involved in a report of abuse or neglect than white children. Even more startling, children of color are 12.8 times more likely to be placed in foster care. 

This uproots entire families, and the impact of these actions are crucial to understand. 

As in the case described above, in which Ms. D had to forfeit her job due to biased hearings, a Rutgers Law School report highlighted how initial “child protective” actions often interferes with a parent’s efforts to secure housing, income, benefits and overall economic stability. This disproportionally derails minority families, furthering the economic gap and forcing them to remain marginalized. 

New York City has recently become aware of these issues, primarily the use of cannabis to separate families and derail their economic progress. As a result, the City Council has ordered the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) to create a policy in which the possession of cannabis no longer warrants a child’s removal, due to the inherent fact that possession does not create an imminent risk of harm for a child. 

There is also proposed legislation in New York that would address the use of cannabis in family court. 

Those are crucial first steps, and we can be hopeful that the example set by the city of New York will create a waterfall effect across the nation. Following the legalization or decriminalization of cannabis in many states, there needs to be follow-up legislation or guidelines outlining how it will be used in other aspects of the system. 

Most importantly, the inherently biased use of family court in all realms must be addressed by the nation. 

Jess Graham is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science. Her column, "Considerations of Crime," runs on alternate Wednesdays. 

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