DCFS And Illinois Courts Refusing To Follow New Cannabis Anti-Discrimination Law: Parents Risk Losing Children Over Cannabis Use Despite Legalization

By Jay Lindsay, CROSSROAD LEGAL

ILLINOIS: On June 25, 2019, Governor J.B. Pritzker signed into a law sweeping new legislation legalizing personal recreational use of Cannabis in Illinois. Under the law, Illinoisans can now use cannabis not only for medicinal purposes, but also recreationally. The law also prohibits discrimination based on cannabis in certain situations. Specifically, the anti-discrimination provision is strategically drafted to avoid cannabis users from suffering negative or adverse impacts in Illinois family and juvenile courts, including actions by Child Protective Services. Despite passage of this law, DCFS and courts remain unwilling to comply with these anti-discrimination rules.

To fully understand why this is important and how it affects Illinois parents, a little background is necessary.

The Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act of 2019

Effective the first day of 2020, Cannabis became legal for personal use in Illinois. The new law is entitled the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, and the personal use provisions are found in the Illinois Code at 410 ILCS 705/10-5 et seq. Under the new law, Illinois residents are legally permitted to use and possess Cannabis and Cannabis-related products. There are, of course, limitations.

POSSESSION OF CANNABIS

  • Up to 30 grams of Cannabis in raw form
  • Cannabis-infused product or products containing no more than 500 mg of THC
  • Five grams of cannabis product in concentrated form 

PRIOR INCARCERATIONS

Under House Bill 1438, which ultimately became the new law last year, the Governor has created a clemency process that will ultimately help to exonerate and clear the records of hundreds of thousands of people convicted of minor Cannabis charges. 

  • Automatic expungement for any possession charge of up to 30 grams
  • Potential clemency for possession of 30-500 grams, but only upon petitioning a court to vacate the conviction.

The Marijuana Policy Project estimates that this will result in an estimated 770,000 overturned convictions. This is perhaps the most notable part of the legislation, because it could effectively re-enfranchise almost a million Illinois residents of things like voting and gun rights. Under current law, drug-related convictions can be used as a reason for the Illinois State Police revoking or denying a Firearm Owners Identification Card (FOID).  Likewise, for felony convictions, many people lose the right to vote. Many of these rights are now likely subject to restoration.

Public Support for Cannabis

Before directly addressing the issue of discrimination, it is worth noting that the majority of Illinoisans support legalization. Even in the most rural and conservative reaches of the state, Cannabis is gaining wide-spread acceptance. According to the advocacy group, Legalize Illinois, the following statistics were reported in relation to resident approval of legalization:

  • Chicago: 77% support and 22% oppose legalization
  • Downstate: 58% support and 40% oppose legalization
  • Statewide: 66% support and 32% oppose legalization

Anti-Discrimination Provision

Now that the background and legislative underpinnings are clear, we turn to the problem at hand.  Under the new law, there’s a specific provision that directly applies to family courts and actions by the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). The provision found at 410 ILCS 705/10-30(a) outlines the precise ways that the government may not use a person’s conduct under the statute. Below, the statute is broken into three parts for clarity:

Neither the presence of cannabinoid components or metabolites in a person’s bodily fluids nor possession of cannabis-related paraphernalia, nor conduct related to the use of cannabis or the participation in cannabis-related activities lawful under this Act by a custodial or noncustodial parent, grandparent, legal guardian, foster parent, or other person charged with the well-being of a child . . .

. . . shall form the sole or primary basis or supporting basis for any action or proceeding by a child welfare agency or in a family or juvenile court, any adverse finding, adverse evidence, or restriction of any right or privilege in a proceeding related to adoption of a child, acting as a foster parent of a child, or a person’s fitness to adopt a child or act as a foster parent of a child, or serve as the basis of any adverse finding, adverse evidence, or restriction of any right of privilege in a proceeding related to guardianship, conservatorship, trusteeship, the execution of a will, or the management of an estate . . .

. . . unless the person’s actions in relation to cannabis created an unreasonable danger to the safety of the minor or otherwise show the person to not be competent as established by clear and convincing evidence. This subsection applies only to conduct protected under this Act. 

Juvenile Court Act vs. Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act

In a landmark Supreme Court decision, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, that there is “a fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children.” See Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000).

Moreover, the Court wrote, “[t]he liberty interest at issue in this case-the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children-is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court. See id. at 65. 

It is with this context from the Supreme Court that we next must address how Illinois law treats removal of children for abuse and neglect allegations.

Under the Illinois Juvenile Court Act of 1987, DCFS is charged with protecting minors from abuse and neglect. When there is a credible report of abuse, DCFS will investigate the allegations and, if founded, may remove a child from their home, place them into emergency protective custody, then turn the matter over to the local States Attorney for the appropriate county. At this time, the prosecutor will file a petition to adjudicate the minor a ward of the court. If successful, the child will be placed into foster care, while a provider agency, such as Caritas or Lutheran Child and Family Services (LCFS), will take over managing the casework associated with the matter. A service plan is created, and parents must complete the service plan and meet all requirements of the agency before the children can be returned.

Under the Juvenile Court Act, 705 ILCS 405/2-18(2)(f), the court deciding the matter at the adjudicatory hearing may consider:

proof that a parent, custodian or guardian of a minor repeatedly used a drug, to the extent that it has or would ordinarily have the effect of producing in the user a substantial state of stupor, unconsciousness, intoxication, hallucination, disorientation or incompetence, or a substantial impairment of judgment, or a substantial manifestation of irrationality, shall be prima facie evidence of neglect.

Under the Juvenile Court Act drug is not a per se or automatic reason for removal of children. Drug use must create a “substantial” effect on the parent, to the point that the Department feels that the parent cannot properly care for a child. In practice, this is very different, however. Typically, ANY use will be enough for DCFS to remove a child. Historically, this included Cannabis. 

Breaking it Down

Since there are now two potentially conflicting laws, Courts are left to decide whether or not they will follow the new anti-discrimination provision by simply disregarding evidence of Cannabis use, or whether they will continue to view Cannabis as a drug that supports removal of minor children.

Case Examples from Practice

 The author is a former Assistant Public Defender for a rural county in downstate Illinois. In the first year since legalization, numerous cases have come before the court with little evidence of drug use except minor Cannabis possession or positive THC test results. Consider the following* examples:

  • Young mother has argument with boyfriend, and children are removed due to allegations of domestic violence. After 6 months, all services are complete. There was no evidence of illegal drug use, alcohol abuse or other substance-related issues. While under oath, a case worker testified that the sole reason why the children have not yet been returned to the mother from May 2020 to November 2020 is her positive drug tests for THC. At a hearing, one child was returned to a father, in part due to the fact that mother was alleged to have continued using Cannabis.

Rationale – According to DCFS, the mother had a service plan that required her to remain free from all drugs, including Cannabis; therefore, it is the State’s position that even though Cannabis is legal, she is prohibited from using it.

  • Judge orders young mother to receive overnight visits and have children returned within 30 days, due to minimal nature of the case. DCFS refuses to honor the court’s order, based on allegations that the mother is still using Cannabis. A single positive test for THC from several months earlier used to argue that she is unfit to have the children go home. The court allowed the matter to be continued for another 90 days and decided not to return the child.

Rationale – According to DCFS, there were concerns about the mother using Cannabis, because she is underage (18) at the time, and thus use would be considered illegal.

  • Young mother has a messy home and is accused of being under the influence while caring for her small child. Notably, under oath, the police officer repeatedly referred to discovering evidence of illicit drug use in the home. On closer cross-examination, it turned out the mother had an empty vape pen on her nightstand. No Cannabis was located on the property. The mother did admit to using Cannabis at times, but no evidence was provided to indicate she had used Cannabis that day or that she was in possession of Cannabis. While other reasons were used for removing the children, such as the condition of the home, this was a critical piece of evidence heard by and relied upon by the court.

Rationale – According to DCFS, simply having marijuana paraphernalia in reach of a minor child was sufficient to remove the children, as it indicated a drug addiction.

Facing the Dilemma Head-On

With these examples squarely before us, it’s important to note a few things. First, possession of 10 grams or less of Cannabis by a person under the age of 21 is considered a civil violation, punishable by a fine of between $100 and $200. See 720 ILCS 55/4. In fact, possession doesn’t even reach Class A misdemeanor status (comparable to a first-offense DUI) until a minor possesses between 30 and 100 grams of Cannabis. With this in mind, it’s difficult to understand how DCFS and the courts can deprive a parent of such a fundamental liberty as the right to raise one’s own child over such a minor offense. Likewise, the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act clearly outlines that Cannabis use should not be considered in these court proceedings. The law makes no exception for age of the user.

Where We Go Next 

Ultimately, the problem is that although Cannabis has been fully legalized for recreational use, judges and DCFS are still very much using Cannabis as the sole reason (or at a minimum, a substantial reason) for removing children from parents. And once removed from their parents, children are often kept in foster care for years. If the parent tests positive for Cannabis even once, the courts and DCFS will invariably argue that the parent is failing to make reasonable efforts and substantial progress toward the return of the child. This key language is used to eventually terminate parental rights for good.

It is imperative that the fundamental liberties of parents in Illinois be protected at all costs. As Justice O’Connor wrote in 2000, the right to raise one’s own children is perhaps the oldest recognized liberty in our country’s history. Indeed, this fundamental right is being breached every day in courtrooms across the state, because the clear text of the law is being ignored. Despite Illinois passing a law that prohibits consideration of Cannabis use or possession in DCFS proceedings and juvenile court hearings, state agencies and judges remain completely unwilling to disregard it. In doing so, one could certainly argue that the courts are re-criminalizing Cannabis. In fact, the outcome is that one can lose their children forever for something that amounts to little more than a civil fine if done underage. Imagine losing your children for burning without a permit or littering.

It’s high time that the Illinois legislature put some teeth in the law by creating some form of penalty for state agencies that disregard the law. It also raises the possibility that some parents may have significant civil actions against the State of Illinois where DCFS and provider agencies disregard the law and remove children due to Cannabis use in the home. Illinois NORML continues to advocate and fight hard for the residents of the state every day.

*Due to confidentiality of juvenile court records, the author is unable to discuss specific cases or names of participants.


Jaye R. Lindsay is the founding attorney for CROSSROAD LEGAL, a general practice law firm based in O’Fallon, IL.