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Diane Goldstein Headshot

'Drug Endangered Children' Laws Will Do More Harm Than Good

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As a frontline police officer I spent a twenty year career responding to calls where I attempted to balance the power and authority I had to protect lives while trying not to inflict any harm. Every police officer has a story of their most horrific moment in law enforcement and the majority of these experiences involve children. Police are often thrust into positions that require making a decision to remove children from their parents' homes in order to protect them from abuse. Without question, wielding this authority was by far the most troubling aspect of my profession; I would always question whether I did the right thing.

Let me be clear: it is commendable and an appropriate role of government to protect our children. Yet in the zeal to do so, we have seen significant damage done to families through "drug endangered children" (DEC) laws that replace common sense and an evaluation of individual circumstances with zero-tolerance laws that foster injustice. Recall the "crack baby" scare that wasn't.

The latest effort to implement a DEC is currently underway in Colorado, where the Colorado General Assembly moved SB13-278 to a senate judiciary hearing scheduled for Wednesday April 9th at 1:30pm.

The language of the bill would define a child as "drug endangered" if a parental caretaker uses or possesses any licit or illicit substance whether or not a child is actually present in the home at that moment. Furthermore, the law does not require any further evidence of abuse or neglect to allow the police to remove the child. And because much of the language of the bill is taken from federal law, children could be taken away for use or possession of marijuana, even though both are now legal in the state.

My cynical nature and professional experience tell me that this well-intentioned but overly broad law will, in fact, contribute to many collateral consequences under the auspices of helping children. By being overly broad, this law further subverts Fourth Amendment protections, allowing police greater leeway to enter your home and to use the love of your children against you so that you don't fully exercise your constitutionally protected rights. It may also overburden a foster system that is already stretched too thin.

Maybe my experience was tainted because of the first child I placed in protective custody. His scream resonates with me to this day. Despite all the physical abuse, when I carried him away, he cried, flailed and screamed "Mommy, mommy, help me!" Intellectually, I know that I used my authority to protect this little boy, yet how could I help but question the morality of tearing him away from his mother or to wonder if there was a better solution? No doubt that this painful experience helped me to understand that even when wielding authority correctly, there are many unintended consequences, including the infliction of trauma on children that have already been victimized.

We already have enough documented abuses by law enforcement and social services agencies who have taken children hostage despite the absence of evidence of neglect or abuse. One notable case in which a child was taken from her parents for marijuana use resulted in the beating death of two-year old Alexandria Hill of Texas by her foster mother. Though most cases don't result in this horrific an outcome, many studies confirm that the risk of physical and emotional harm increases substantially in foster care. Children's Rights, a child advocacy organization, says that nearly half of all children in foster care have chronic medical problems, 50 percent of those under five have developmental delays, and almost 80 percent have serious emotional problems.

We often do more damage to kids under the guise of protecting them than we would by applying harm reduction strategies that would help to ameliorate drug abuse in our communities. The Drug Policy Alliance is particularly concerned that the law as amended "will stigmatize and isolate communities and families that display pre-existing vulnerabilities, such as the poor, mentally ill and those struggling with drug use/misuse issues."

There is a time and a place for law enforcement to intervene to protect our children from neglect and mistreatment, yet like any zero-tolerance policy, the effects of this law will likely contribute to heartbreak by removing children from their loved ones without any evidence of actual abuse and or neglect. Based on experiences by many families across our country, I believe that law enforcement will use this law as a tool not to curb child abuse but to extort parents into cooperating with them and to extracting more guilty pleas, as they have when they've taken children away from loving, responsible parents who also happen to be legitimate medical marijuana patients.

My professional experience suggests that police and prosecutors will use the law to further drug investigations and to hold parental rights captive as they exact guilty pleas to low level narcotics charges that would be better addressed by family therapy or drug rehabilitation. It is this historic abuse of discretion and power that exemplifies one of the worst failings of the drug war: its effect on our families.

For those wishing to share their concerns on how this legislation may impact your parenting rights please contact the Senate Judiciary Committee prior to the scheduled hearing this Wednesday at 1:30 PM.