New York City’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services (A.C.S.), is expected to pay $75,000 to Chanetto Rivers, a Bronx mother whose newborn son was taken away after she legally used marijuana shortly before giving birth.
Rivers filed a lawsuit in May, alleging racial discrimination, as she is Black. The agency has been under scrutiny for its aggressive stance on parents’ marijuana use and its treatment of Black families.
The Rivers case is seen as a significant legal victory because it marks the first time someone has taken the initiative to hold the agency accountable for violating a provision in the state’s marijuana legalization law that prohibits child removal solely based on a parent’s marijuana use. A federal judge recently approved A.C.S.’s offer to pay Rivers $75,000 in a settlement.
This landmark case stems from an incident in August 2021 when Rivers smoked marijuana at a family gathering, subsequently experiencing contractions and going to the hospital to give birth, according to the New York Times.
Narrating events leading to separating Rivers’s baby from her, her lawyers, Bronx Defenders, said during her baby’s delivery, she was questioned about her drug or alcohol consumption. She admitted to smoking marijuana.
Without her consent or knowledge, both she and her newborn, identified as T.W. in court documents, were tested, and both tested positive for marijuana. Subsequently, two days later, A.C.S. informed Rivers of the opening of a neglect case and initiated proceedings to place T.W. in foster care.
According to A.C.S. policy, the presence of marijuana in an infant’s system does not automatically warrant removal unless there is evidence of potential impairment. In this case, the agency did not establish any impairment, as per the lawsuit. However, it took Rivers nearly a week, multiple court appearances, and a judge’s order, which went against A.C.S.’s objections, to regain custody of her newborn, T.W., from BronxCare Health System and bring him home.
Despite this, Rivers’ legal representatives claim that A.C.S. continued to conduct unannounced home visits, some occurring in the middle of the night, for an additional three months. They also required her to participate in parenting classes and undergo drug testing during this period.
With legal representation from the Bronx Defenders and Arnold & Porter, Rivers filed a lawsuit alleging that A.C.S. targeted her not because A.C.S. was trying to protect T.W. but because she is Black. The suit contended that her case was symptomatic of A.C.S.’s historical discrimination against Black families, a practice partly substantiated in a 2020 audit where agency employees themselves reported systemic racism within A.C.S.
This isn’t the first time Rivers has had a brush with the agency. In 2016, she had a previous child welfare case that led to the loss of custody of two older children. However, her legal team argued that this history was irrelevant because A.C.S. had already approved her regaining custody of those children by the time T.W. was born. Family court judges also determined that the previous case did not pose a risk to T.W.
In the city’s agreement with Rivers, it does not acknowledge any wrongdoing or concede that she suffered damages.