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

ILLINOIS: In a case that challenges racial disparities in the child welfare system, the Family Defense Center 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. Torie I., 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.

The Center argues that the legal requirements for the permanent severance of the parent-child relationship have not been satisfied. The State presented no evidence as to how Torie’s marijuana use affected her ability to care for her son or harmed her son, the petition states. Torie admitted to smoking cannabis to calm herself, but never in front of her child.

Racial and sexual orientation bias may have played a role in the decision, the petition suggests. The Center cites the child removal rate in Peoria County, which is nearly 8 times greater for African Americans than for families of other races.

In March 2011, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, responding to a hotline call, investigated Torie and indicated her for child neglect, citing Allegation 60, also known as “environment injurious.” This overly broad allegation was declared void by the Illinois Supreme Court in 2013 in the Center’s landmark case Julie Q. v. DCFS.

Torie cooperated with a DCFS safety plan, under which her son went to live with her adoptive parents. In 2012, the juvenile court stepped in and Torie went into a court-ordered in-patient drug treatment program in late 2013. 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 were finalized by a judge last December. The court stated that she had failed to make “reasonable progress” during a nine-month period.

“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,” said the Center’s Founder and Legal Director Diane Redleaf.

African Americans make up only 18 percent of the population in Peoria County but more than 63 percent of the children removed from their parents in the county’s juvenile court cases, according to the Center. Further muddying the waters is the shifting legal 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 parental rights.

“There are millions of parents who occasionally use marijuana and successfully raise their children,” said the Center’s Executive Director Rachel O’Konis Ruttenberg. “This mother and child relationship should be supported and not irrevocably destroyed.”

The Center will host a call to discuss the case on Thursday, August 4, at 1 p.m. The Family Defense Center is a non-profit legal organization whose mission is to advocate justice for families in the child welfare system.