As any concerned mother would do, Ms. K contacted child protective services when she discovered that her partner was endangering the lives of her one and three-year-old child. Fearing abuse and unable to control the situation herself, Ms. K never suspected that she would be the one arrested when CPS and the police arrived. After all, Ms. K had no history of child neglect or abuse and had called to protect her children. Ms. K habitually used marijuana to cope with an anxiety disorder. After agreeing to a search and testing positive for marijuana in her system, her children were taken away from her. She then began her spiral into depression, more drug use, time spent in residential treatment programs, and now prison. Although Ms. K’s children are in the care of their grandmother, the state is moving to terminate her parental rights so the children can be adopted. Ms. K will permanently lose her parental rights, even though she is likely to live with her mother and children when she returns to the community. The grandmother would like to take the children to see Ms. K; however the social worker on the case will not approve the visits. All of this is said to be in the best interest of her children.
I heard this story from Ms. K just last week as I sat in the legal library of the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW), where as an Equal Justice Works Attorney at Legal Voice I provide know your rights information for women who are facing separation from their children due to incarceration. Unfortunately, the story underlying Ms. K’s situation is all too common: domestic violence, coping through drug use, devaluation of motherhood for alleged drug use and mental health instability.
As women’s rights advocates, we should not ignore our incarcerated sisters, the fastest growing population in prison. Due to racial inequality in our criminal justice system, a disproportionate number of these women are women of color.
Inequities for these women and their children exist even before the children are born. Many women are forced to give birth in inhumane conditions. I talk to pregnant women in prison who are forced to continue their pregnancies with poor nutrition and little or no prenatal health care services.
Like Ms. K, many women lose their kids permanently because federal law requires that the state cease to reunify families in the child welfare system and begin proceedings to terminate parental rights as soon as the child is in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months. For incarcerated parents who often serve sentences for non-violent property of drug crimes that exceed 15 months, they may permanently lose their parental rights.
Like Ms. K, many of these women who face losing their parental rights are also survivors of sexual and physical abuse. Incarceration for drug offenses fails to address the issues of underlying trauma and abuse that likely contributed to their involvement with drugs. Prison may actually exacerbate these issues since sexual and physical violence against women at the hands of correctional officers is widespread. The abuse experienced in the prison has devastating consequences for women who are survivors, have high rates of depression and who are working on overcoming substance abuse and addiction.
Because of the circumstances described above, Legal Voice has joined numerous other organizations in the call for an end to our failed marijuana policies by endorsing ballot Initiative 502. For some, the reasons for a women’s rights organization’s support for legalization of marijuana may not be so clear. That is no surprise, since little attention has been paid to the effects drug policy has on our women and girls. Some disturbing facts:
- The rate of imprisonment of women in WA increased by 84% from 1995-2005.
- The rate at which women used drugs actually declined from 1986-1996, but the number of women incarcerated in state facilities for drug offenses increased by 888%.
- The vast majority of incarcerated women are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, other forms of sexual assault, and/or battering. Most have been abused by multiple people.
- Studies show the correlation between trauma related to gender violence and subsequent drug and/or alcohol addiction in women.
- Only 1 in 5 women in state prisons with a history of substance abuse and 1 in 8 women in federal prisons receives treatment for substance abuse.
- Nationwide, an estimated 85% of women who are incarcerated are mothers, and more than half have children under 18.
- The chances that an incarcerated mother will permanently lose her parental rights has doubled since 1995.
The decriminalization of marijuana can lead to fewer women being incarcerated, and therefore fewer women who are faced with the trauma and violence that prisons perpetuate. The central theme of the Reproductive Justice framework is to recognize that the control and exploitation of women’s bodies, sexuality and reproduction is an effective way of controlling individuals and communities, particularly those of color. The criminal justice system creates the perfect scenario to control women’s bodies. Controlling an individual’s body controls her life, her options and her potential.
Still not sure if I-502 is a women’s issue? Here are some answers to the common questions I hear regularly.
In sum, we need real solutions that address the underlying causes of drug use in our community. It is time we look at a public health approach, instead of criminalization. Solutions such as I-502 have the potential to help mothers like Ms. K address the underlying issues of control and abuse. Just imagine: what would Ms. K’s situation have looked like if instead of arresting her for habitual drug use, she were instead provided the support necessary to protect her children and change the abusive dynamic in her home?
Lillian Hewko is an Equal Justice Works Fellow at Legal Voice. She is working to implement a project she developed to provide legal education to incarcerated mothers and implement litigation and legislative strategies to reduce the chances of family separation in Washington State.