The Mother of All Paradoxes

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For those of you who are new here, my partner has fifty-fifty custody of his two children with his ex-wife. They adopted their children from foster care after several years (they had their daughter “LaLa” from the age of 10 weeks old, and brought their son, “Bubs,” home from the hospital at two days hold).

Also for those of you who are new here, I have struggled, and sometimes suffered, with infertility for nearly two decades. I, too, have been a foster parent in the past.

Fast forward four years from the time I became a part of this family, and our Littles are now in elementary school. Last fall, Stacy and I began talking about opening up our home to another baby.

While you don’t have to have a license to create kids of your own, you have to have a license to take care of other people’s children (not without good reason). After several conversations with our current two about the idea of adding a sibling, we contacted our local foster care agency and began allofthepaperwork and requisite tasks.

One night, as Stacy and I sat talking about–dare I say dreaming out loud about–what our next child might be like, the Weight of Unvarnished Truth lay heavy in my stomach: we could easily predict with eerie accuracy the circumstances surrounding who our next child is likely to be.

We could do this because we were both already intimately familiar with how the US foster care system is built. And, like most systems in this nation, long before we knew the names Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Elijah McClain, George Floyd, and too many others, the US foster care system was created in a way that left it heavily stacked against those who are educationally deprived, economically disadvantaged, and legally disenfranchised.

In case I need to be more clear, that means that the women and couples with children in the US foster care system are disproportionately likely to be Black and/or Indigenous.

Here in Lawrence, home to Haskell Indian Nations University, our Indigenous population is roughly three times higher than the national average. You can extrapolate that for yourself with regard to which families end up in foster care at the highest rate (please don’t confuse “the highest rate” with “the highest number”/”the most”… “the highest rate” refers to numbers in proportion to the city’s population outside of the foster care system).

It is not a far stretch to say that, like so many of our current social systems, today’s foster care system has its roots in slavery and the assimilationist boarding schools colonizers forced indigenous children to attend. It may be more comfortable to believe that the road between that past and this present is long and winding, but it is actually painfully direct.

Image reads: “A child born to another woman calls me mommy. The magnitude of that tragedy & the depth of that privilege are not lost on me.”

In Kansas, the number one reason children are removed from parental custody is for physical abuse (which accounts for nearly 17% of removals so far during the current fiscal year). The contributing factors to physical abuse are not something I have the ability nor desire to explore here.

However, according to open records published by my state, substance misuse (inlcuding substance-positive infants and substance-affected infants) was the primary factor in over ten percent of the child removals in the most recent fiscal year, and no doubt a contributing factor in many more.

I want to make connections between the overwhelming criminalization of Black and brown skin, the criminalization of marijuana, and the removal of children from parental custody.

In Kansas, the drug class most likely to lead to custody loss was methamphetamines (which was ten times more likely to be a primary factor than alcohol).

Our state separates reporting for alcohol, methamphetamines, and opioids, presumably due to their respective historical longevity and recency, as well as the magnitude of the roles they play in child removal.

Kansas records do not separate marijuana use, and this is of particular interest to me, given the prevalence of marijuana use in the US [in their most recent numbers (2017), SAMHSA reports marijuana was the most frequently used and misused drug in the US in people aged 12 and older, and especially in adults aged 26+].

I single out marijuana because of the legal tide that is slowly turning in our country. In Kansas, marijuana use is still fully illegal, for any reason. There is one county in the state that will no longer prosecute petty possession cases on the first offense, and it happens to be the county where I live–although I do not believe that those currently incarcerated in this county due to marijuana infractions have been released.

Every state that borders Kansas has some degree of legal use, but not all of those states have decriminalized non-medical possession. As far as I have been able to gather by the Power of Google, ten states plus the District of Columbia have fully legalized and decriminalized the use of marijuana. Twenty-seven states have legalized only the use of medical marijuana (a few states limiting that to CBD oil only). But twenty-four states maintain criminal penalties for possession or use of marijuana, including fifteen states that allow marijuana for medical use.

White-identified people are the undisputed numerical majority in the US (approximately 75%, according to the 2010 US Census), yet there is a disproportionate percentage of Black and brown persons incarcerated. In 2010, just under one-half of a percent of white-identified people were incarcerated. In the same year, two-thirds of a percent of Hispanic-identified people and over two percent of Black people were incarcerated.

That means Black people were incarcerated at FIVE TIMES the rate of white people, and together, Black and Hispanic people were incarcerated at SEVEN TIMES the rate of white people. This is for all infractions, not only for marijuana possession or use.

Looking specifically at marijuana use and/or possession versus arrests across the US, although lifetime, past-year, and past-month use rates between Black and white people are roughly the same, arrest rates around marijuana have been consistently THREE TIMES HIGHER for Black people than white people (“A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform,” ACLU, 2020).

During this fiscal year, 151 child removal instances in Kansas were due to either unspecified drug abuse or parental incarceration. That’s a bit over four-and-a-half percent of removals.

Unfortunately, because of the lack of specificity in record-keeping, it cannot be determined based on available data alone how many of those instances involved marijuana use and/or incarceration around marijuana. Therefore, I am not able to make a concrete connection between race, marijuana, and child removal.

But look around, friends–especially white friends. It is probable that someone you know well, or someone known to you through a mutual friend, uses marijuana in some form, either medicinally or recreationally, on a consistent basis. It is also probable that many of those people have children, and nobody questions the safety of their children, in spite of that marijuana use.

If your gut reaction is to deny that you know anyone who is both white and a regular marijuana user, I encourage you to sit with that in contemplation.

I implore those in positions of authority and those making policy to consider the anecdotal connection between race, marijuana use/arrests/incarceration, and child removal. As we work as a municipality, a county, a state, and a nation to remake our social systems, we must not ignore the intertwined nature of the criminal and justice systems with the foster care system.

As always, I welcome your thoughtful questions and comments.

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