Cloudy on child wel­fare

Drug-re­lated cases have risen in Colorado, but ties to le­gal­ized pot re­main un­clear

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Jen­nifer Brown

Colorado child-pro­tec­tion cases re­lated to drug use have in­creased since the state opened recre­ational mar­i­juana shops three years ago, yet it’s un­clear how much the uptick re­lates to pot.

Child wel­fare cases in­volv­ing drug use by a par­ent or foster par­ent went up by about 2 per­cent­age points from 2013 to 2015, even as the to­tal num­ber of new child wel­fare cases de­clined. That’s an in­crease from 1,513 drug-re­lated cases to 1,720 statewide. What’s un­known is how many of those cases in­volved mar­i­juana or any other num­ber of drugs, in­clud­ing metham­phetamine, heroin, co­caine and pre­scrip­tion painkillers.

Still, a Joint Bud­get Com­mit­tee staff brief­ing this month sug­gested county child wel­fare de­part­ments use money from the state’s “mar­i­juana tax cash fund” be­cause of the im­pact pot has had on abuse and ne­glect in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Child wel­fare caseloads have in­creased since mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion, “specif­i­cally cases re­lated to child mar­i­juana ex­po­sure,” ac­cord­ing to the leg­isla­tive brief­ing from bud­get staff.

Un­til the state col­lects bet­ter data, how­ever, the pre­cise im­pact of mar­i­juana on child abuse and ne­glect cases is un­known. The state child wel­fare de­part­ment’s com­puter sys­tem does not track drug-spe­cific in­for­ma­tion, al­though that will change next year.

De­spite the lack of data, county child wel­fare workers re­port that le­gal­ized mar­i­juana has com­pli­cated their jobs.

Colorado opened a new statewide child abuse hot­line in 2015, a year af­ter recre­ational pot shops opened. Since then, the state has seen a surge in calls al­leg­ing abuse and ne­glect, reach­ing about 17,000 per month. The tim­ing of both events, and the scarcity of data, makes it dif­fi­cult to sort out whether the in­crease in calls was all due to the new hot­line or whether le­gal­iz­ing mar­i­juana im­pacted the num­ber of calls.

Re­port­ing that a par­ent or care­giver uses mar­i­juana is not in and of it­self cause for open­ing a child abuse or ne­glect in­ves­ti­ga­tion — child wel­fare case­work­ers only per­form an “as­sess­ment” when there is con­cern for a child’s safety. Mar­i­juana has long been a part of the con­ver­sa­tion as case­work­ers de­ter­mine whether to open a child wel­fare in­ves­ti­ga­tion, years be­fore it was le­gal.

Le­gal­ized mar­i­juana has added

an­other layer in de­ter­min­ing a child’s safety, but child pro­tec­tion workers don’t think it has sin­gle-hand­edly re­sulted in an ex­plo­sion of abuse and ne­glect in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Child wel­fare workers get in­volved when a new­born tests pos­i­tive for mar­i­juana, when a child has in­gested mar­i­juana or when a care­giver’s mar­i­juana use harms a child’s wel­fare.

“The drug use may be a fac­tor, but are the kids get­ting to school ev­ery day, are they fed, are they cared for, are they run­ning in the streets unat­tended, are there peo­ple com­ing into the home that are un­known to them?” said Barb Weinstein, as­so­ci­ate di­rec­tor of Jef­fer­son County’s divi­sion of chil­dren, youth and fam­i­lies.

Le­gal­iz­ing mar­i­juana has meant more kids are ex­posed to the drug — a JAMA Pe­di­atrics study found that emer­gen­cy­room vis­its and poi­son-con­trol calls for kids ages 9 and younger who con­sumed pot in Colorado jumped af­ter recre­ational mar­i­juana stores opened. About twice as many kids vis­ited Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal Colorado’s emer­gency room per year in 2014 and 2015 com­pared with be­fore the open­ing of recre­ational mar­i­juana stores. An­nual poi­son-con­trol cases in­creased five­fold.

The Colorado De­part­ment of Hu­man Ser­vices, which in­cludes child wel­fare, did not ask for money from the mar­i­juana tax cash fund in a leg­isla­tive pre­sen­ta­tion this week, de­spite the Joint Bud­get Com­mit­tee brief­ing sug­gest­ing that it makes sense. The fund had $92 mil­lion avail­able for the cur­rent bud­get year.

Ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Reg­gie Bicha told law­mak­ers the de­part­ment would in July be­gin track­ing drug-spe­cific data on child abuse and ne­glect cases. The de­part­ment’s com­puter sys­tem in­cludes de­tailed in­for­ma­tion about each child wel­fare case, in­clud­ing drug use or ex­po­sure, but the sys­tem can­not tally those in­ci­dents as ag­gre­gate data.

Mar­i­juana, though, isn’t the drug child wel­fare workers are most con­cerned about, Bicha told the com­mit­tee. More than pot, they are see­ing in­creased im­pact on chil­dren from heroin, meth and pre­scrip­tion drugs.

“We’ve al­ways had mar­i­juana im­pact many of the fam­i­lies that we work with,” he said. “That’s not nec­es­sar­ily new.”

Sev­eral county child wel­fare de­part­ments were re­luc­tant to dis­cuss the im­pact of le­gal­ized mar­i­juana, given the data de­fi­ciency.

Den­ver County’s child wel­fare workers “have been work­ing with le­gal­ized mar­i­juana in our state in some form since med­i­cal mar­i­juana laws were passed about 15 years ago,” said Amy Fidelis, deputy di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

In Adams County, the “vast ma­jor­ity” of drug-re­lated child wel­fare cases that meet the le­gal thresh­old for open­ing a case in­volve opi­oids, co­caine, meth or heroin, said spokesman Jim Siedleck. “Our ini­tial re­view in­di­cates we have not seen any sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in re­fer­rals due ex­clu­sively to mar­i­juana use over the past two years,” he said.

Al­though the num­ber of hot­line calls re­gard­ing child abuse and ne­glect has climbed in re­cent years, the num­ber of new cases in which case­work­ers were as­signed to pro­tect chil­dren has de­clined. New cases dropped from 12,237 in 2013 to 10,625 in 2015. At the same time, open cases in­volv­ing drug use in­creased by 194.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.