The Voice on the other end of the phone was matter-of-fact. “We are contacting you in regards to a report we have received about your three children.”
There are five moments in my life during which I have been able to see clearly that I was in the midst of some radical change–Occasions where a cosmic shift in my life path was taking place and I recognized it as it was happening–Moments where time stood still and sped up, all at the same time. On four of these five occasions I found myself staring with disbelief at the double line on the pregnancy test. I was to become a mother… again. The fifth major shift took place on a sunny day three weeks before Christmas last year, when I answered the phone, suspecting nothing. The caller? The Ministry of Children and Families.
After clarifying the family details, The Voice explained that the report was in regards to the boys’ Dad, Bill. “The concern,” The Voice said, “is that Bill has smelled like marijuana when he was picking up the boys from school.” My mind raced while I did my best to keep a calm demeanor. “I see” was the only safe reply I could think of in that moment. The Voice explained that what they wanted to do was get in contact with Bill, but after their investigation they felt the best course would be to have me sign a document that stated I was the responsible “parent in charge.” It would essentially promise that I would ensure the boys’ safety when they were in Bill’s care. It was difficult to not be offended, and even harder to keep my activist tongue in check.
The best course, at this point was to get off the phone as quickly as possible. I told The Voice I would have to take some time to think about what she had just told me, and that I would call her back the next day. She seemed satisfied by that answer.
No one can really describe the range of emotions that both Bill and I experienced over the 24 hours following. The Voice had made a damning request. We moved from anger to fear; regret to determination; utter sadness to defeat. We did in fact live in a world where the mere smell of your body could initiate an investigation into your family by government officials.
The officials may have noticed Bill’s herbal aroma, but did they also notice that Bill played everyday with the kids in playground after school? Did they know how many times he had kissed their owies and adored their artwork? Did they talk to the boys’ last school principal who extended an open invitation to Bill to come back to the school anytime “to play with the kids?” She didn’t have any difficulty recognizing the value of an engaged, attentive, and fun male role model. It’s not likely that the people who noticed Bill’s odour, and reported it to the police, knew these things about him. Nor did they likely realize that Bill was a medicinal user, and that the marijuana scent was in fact part of the elixir which allowed him to be the attentive, loving father that our children and their friends got to enjoy. Medical marijuana helped Bill to manage his pain, yet in the mind of The Voice, he stood convicted.
We needed to come up with a plan, and fast. I reached out to my contacts in activism and hoped to find someone who could point us in the right direction. While my colleagues were sympathetic to our situation, they had very little advice to offer. The best collective wisdom was to contact a lawyer. The problem was that lawyers cost money. We were both struggling to get by the best we could at any given time, let alone three weeks before Christmas. We needed more time. We needed more information. The plan was to get both. I would call The Voice late in the afternoon the next day, and ask a list of questions that would hopefully get us more clarity, while Bill did his best to get on to legal aid to see an attorney.
The conversation with The Voice the next day was as enlightening but infuriating. An investigation had taken place in the weeks leading up to the fateful phone call. The boys’ teachers, school officials, crossing guards, neighbours all were contacted in the weeks preceding The Voice’s first contact with me. Someone was clearly looking hard for evidence of abuse or neglect. When I asked The Voice to list ALL the concerns the Ministry had uncovered, it was hard not to laugh in outrage.
“One son had mud on his jacket” she reported. “Your other son reported being tired in class” and finally, the clincher, “your youngest son has been having some issues with bowel control.
although we understand from his teacher that is a medical issue and he is under treatment from a doctor.”
I summarized the Ministry’s position for her to be sure I understood it. “So, you are investigating Bill because of the way someone says he smells, and you are backing this investigation with the evidence that one of the boys had mud on his jacket, one was tired one day in class, and one has a medical issue? Is this the kind of evidence that warrants an investigation and documentation? Can you please tell me which of these things indicate that there is any harm or safety issues with my boys?” The voice was taken aback. I am sure that on account of our relationship status (the boys father and I do not live together) The Ministry thought it would be easy pickings on Bill’s parental rights. Most exes would willingly have signed a document declaring themselves the responsible parent in charge. But I had spent the better part of a decade understanding, educating, arguing and fighting the unjust legal status of Cannabis. It wasn’t likely that The Voice and I would see eye to eye on this one.
As our conversation progressed it became clear that this particular social worker equated the use of marijuana with drinking alcohol. “If someone smelled alcohol on a parent at the school that’s something we would be concerned about, especially if they were driving,” she responded quickly. I wondered aloud if they would be concerned about people taking Oxycodone for pain before they came to pick up their kids. Her questions then turned, asking if Bill used Marijuana for pain. Of course, I kept telling her she would have to ask him, and that I was only trying to understand their policy on such things. She asked questions about whether Bill drove the boys to school or anywhere else. Bill doesn’t own a vehicle, and the boys and I lived only two blocks from school. That one was easy to answer. The call ended politely, but the battle lines were drawn. I was going to support my ex in this situation.
Meanwhile, Bill had discovered that he qualified for legal aid here in BC, and they were quite timely in their response. Within three days he was speaking directly with a lawyer who, on Bill’s behalf, contacted the Ministry. Bill’s lawyer relayed the crux of the conversation to us. They were mostly concerned about Bill driving the boys while under the influence. The lawyer told us that The Ministry would contact her when they had made a decision about what they were going to do next.
It was a long Holiday season. Government holiday closures meant the decision was delayed until the kids went back to school. It was a weight on both our shoulders. We were familiar with the injustice that ran rampant throughout USA and Canada when it came to Child Services overstepping their mandate.
Perhaps the most haunting example of such injustice is the story of Alex Hill, a happy-go-lucky two-year old from Texas who was taken from her parents after her father, Joshua Hill, admitted to Child Welfare investigators that he smoked marijuana after Alex was asleep at night. This, combined with Alex’s mothers medical condition (frequent seizures) led the caseworker to remove Alex from the home in early 2013. She was placed in foster care to keep her safe.
In July of 2013 Sherill Small, the woman who was tasked to keep Alex safe, murdered her in what one can only assume was a fit of rage. She admitted in the emergency room, where she had taken Alex, that she had ‘accidentally’ slammed the two-year old against the floor. The autopsy however revealed several bruises all around her body. The medical examiner stated that her head hit the floor so violently that she had “subdural hemorrhaging, subarachnoid hemorrhaging, and retinal hemorrhaging of both eyes.”
Just four months after Alex’s parents were to regain custody of their daughter, they found themselves instead planning her funeral. This is a tragedy of monumental proportions. How much more painful it is still when we recognize that Alex was far safer in her own home with her own parents.
Sherill Small was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for Alex’s murder. When their daughter taken away and subsequently murdered, Alex’s parents were in effect also sentenced to life. Their ‘crime’ was smoking marijuana.
It was hard to not let these horrific scenarios play out in my head as we waited to hear back from the Ministry. Days stretched into weeks when finally in January, Bill contacted his lawyer once again to get an update. She had not heard from The Ministry, so she made some calls on Bill’s behalf.
The news was a huge relief. They were mostly concerned with Bill driving the boys around intoxicated, but they felt that the boys were safe under our care. Our file and the investigation had been closed. But the stress had ruined Christmas for Bill and me and those who were aware of the monster we were fighting. We were more than relieved to have The Ministry out of our lives.
As with most negative experiences in life, prevention is the key. To prevent unwelcome attention from the Ministry of Children and Families there are plenty of things you can do to avoid the stress and upheaval that comes with an investigation into your parenting abilities and welfare of your children.
1. Realize that You stink. No. Really. You smell… and to nostrils sensitive to smells of exotic herbs you are a walking neon sign advertising your personal business. It takes two minutes to engage the use of some soap, water, and toothpaste. If you are really in a tight spot, some smelly cologne or perfume and a piece of gum can be a quick fix, but don’t expect to make any new friends….
2. It goes without saying that toking in your kids’ airspace is bad form. Step outside, seal a room, break out your vape, or eat a candy, cookie, or brownie.
3. Your medicine should be under lock and key. Always. While you and I both know a bottle of Tylenol will cause more harm to your little one than an ounce of Kush, it’s all about the perception of safety. At any age kids are curious. Best to keep the stash securely stored unless you want to get a call from school because little Johnny brought a nug to show his friends.
4. If you grow, they must never know. Even if you are growing legally. Kids are fascinated by taboos. Most kids learn by grade five about the taboo of cannabis but don’t really understand the ramifications. It’s a curiosity to them, not a reality.
5. Talk to your older kids about what is ‘family business.’ Stress the importance of your privacy. Explain that not everyone understands how your medicine of choice works, and that people can be judgemental in these situations. When talking to kids I like to use the analogy of a bedwetter. If you know someone wets the bed and you tell the other kids at school, you know they will be teased by the mean kids. We all know it is a medical problem, but the mean kids don’t always understand that, or care. They just are mean.
6. Keep talking to your kids. Once the conversation about your own use of Cannabis begins you need to keep talking. Be open and available to answer their questions in an age appropriate way. Be mindful NOT to register shock about the questions they ask (they ALWAYS know more than you think) but be (age appropriately) honest. You MUST be willing to answer their questions in a satisfactory way or their curiosity WILL get the better of them and they WILL ask someone else.
7. Identify the ‘trusted adults.’ This can be incredibly handy when the information and insight you have to offer on the whole marijuana ‘thing’ doesn’t seem to be enough. Some kids are extra curious, so it’s always good to have in mind a few trusted family friends that you can ‘greenlight’ for your kids’ marijuana discussions.
8. Be the best you can be! It’s hokey but its true! Just like women who have to work harder in a traditionally male workplace to prove themselves, Cannabis consuming parents have to hold themselves to a higher standard in a traditionally straight laced environment. You must be above reproach when it comes to your parenting duties. Your kids must be on time for school, in clean clothes, with clean, fed, well rested bodies with their homework done, and their heart full of their parents’ love.
If despite your best efforts the Ministry contacts you, here are a few helpful tips gathered from our experience.
★ First, foremost, and above all else, when the initial call comes keep your shock in check and watch your words. Admit nothing, and out no one. ‘Can I get back to you on that?’ IS an acceptable response.
★ Ask questions. Clarify everything you can. The Ministry will not reveal where the complaint came from, however they will tell you what the report said. In my case they read the complaint word for word. Ask if they have done any further investigation and who they have contacted. Ask questions about what they learned in that investigation. Information is power, and until you know everything that you’re up against, you won’t know the appropriate way to respond.
★ Contact a lawyer. Getting a lawyer is by no means a sign of guilt; it is a sign of intelligence. Language and the meaning of words move to a different level when you are dealing with law. Lawyers live and breath legalese; you don’t.
★ Reach out to your support system. Fear is a formidable foe, and friends can help you keep a level head. Having your people around you can be a healthy distraction. Do not allow wondering who it was that reported you, eat you up. This can only lead to paranoia, which can have you mistrusting everyone and everything.
★ Carry on. By law, The Ministry *has* to investigate every report they get. Don’t let a negative report steal the joy from your family. Continue to do all the things you normally do, and maybe a bit more. Plan some special times with your kids, and console yourself with how absolutely wonderful your children are.
Ten years ago things were in a much different place. Activism has had an important effect. Slowly, over time and through contact with families like mine and yours, The Ministry is getting the message that Cannabis use does not translate into poor parenting. As a parent activist, I can say that it is a fine line we walk everyday. We weigh our desire to speak out on injustice against our need to keep our children protected from a well meaning Ministry that is bound by the very laws we are fighting.
This is a difficult balancing act, but one that we must continue to do. Parents, more than any other demographic, are more likely to vote against legalization propositions. Their views are based on fears that legal Cannabis will cause their children harm in some way. Cannabis friendly parents need to counter this fear-based message with facts that are accurate. For example, children can consume a pound of pot without harm, but a bottle of whisky can kill them. Also, prohibition creates a black market that is willing to sell to your kids. The black market cares only that they have money. And finally, Cannabis use does not signify that people are good or bad parents; actions do.