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HighQ: Can DCFS take away your kids if you smoke marijuana?

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Even though marijuana is legal in California, it's still possible for the Department of Children and Family Services to remove kids from the home for parental marijuana use, according to Dr. Charles Sophy, the department's medical director in Los Angeles County.

"The bottom line is we treat it the same as any other substance," Sophy said.

DCFS gets involved with families when it is alerted to cases of neglect, whether marijuana's a factor or not, he said.

"We’ll often get a call on our child abuse hotline that there’s a child who either told the teacher that they didn’t have breakfast, or they haven’t had a bath in a couple of weeks, or they haven’t seen their parents," Sophy said. "There’s some kind of triggering … statement or allegation made by a child."

Based on such information, DCFS investigators visit the child's home to assess the situation, where they look for paraphernalia or drugs in locations easily accessible to children.

"If we walk into a home or we meet a parent and they look like they are, you know, inebriated or they're under the influence — or they're stoned or high or whatever — we can get a drug test," Sophy said. "We can get one immediately right then and there."

If DCFS investigators determine that consumption of marijuana or other substances is inhibiting a parent's ability to parent, they take action. The steps they take could involve removing the children from the home and requiring parents to attend treatment programs for recovery.

However, Sophy said that while finding higher concentrations of THC — the main mind-altering ingredient in marijuana — in the blood is a red flag, DCFS has no standardized threshold. Whether a child should be removed from a home is at the discretion of DCFS and a judge. DCFS can then continue to test parents to see if THC is still a relevant factor.

However, a 2013 report on DCFS in L.A. County described situations in which families have had their children removed from their homes when parents tested positive for THC, without the homes being investigated for abuse or neglect.

"Parents have had their children removed because they test positive for drugs, without evidence that the children are unsafe or being neglected," the report said. "Several community providers described cases where a client tested positive for marijuana and had his/her children placed into foster care without other evidence of child abuse/neglect."

Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children's Law Center of California, which represents children in L.A. County in cases of neglect, said that, in her opinion, DCFS discriminates against people who use marijuana, especially when compared to people who drink alcohol.

"The fact of the use, legally, is not enough of a reason to disrupt a family," Heimov said.

Speaking hypothetically as a marijuana-using parent, Heimov said:

"I smoke a lot of pot and sleep a lot while my kids are at school, but they get breakfast before they leave in the morning. Or they get free breakfast at school, or free lunch at school, and I make dinner every night. My kids are fine. I can smoke as much pot as I want all day long, in theory, or even [use] other drugs, or alcohol."

"Right now," Heimov added, "a bong sitting on the table is still viewed as some sort of deviant or not acceptable behavior, or is considered a symptom, maybe, of a larger problem. Whereas a glass of wine or a bar stocked with rum, gin, vodka and mixers to make a Moscow Mule is not viewed as the problem, because it has a different connotation."

The 2013 report also pointed out the difficulties lower income families face when it comes to seeking treatment that DCFS requires. They run into geographic restrictions, meaning that services aren’t available to them in easily accessible areas. And there are economic restrictions, such as the difficulty of taking off work to go to required treatment programs. 

"Poverty is being confused with neglect," the report quotes one person as saying. "Child protection is our number one priority, but the reality is that the majority of families protected are just poor," another person said .

Sophy, DCFS' executive director, said that while the number of cases involving marijuana has been on the rise over the past few years, alcohol and methamphetamine abuse are more common.

Heimov thinks that as marijuana use becomes more normalized the stigma around it will change, as it has since medical marijuana arrived in California. 

Series: High-Q: Your California pot questions answered

This story is part of Take Two's look at the burgeoning, multi-billion dollar marijuana industry in California, with audience Q&As, explorations of personal narratives and an examination of how the industry is changing the world around our audience.

Read more in this series and call or text us your questions at (929) 344-1948 or tweet reporter Jacob Margolis.