Despite the lack of data, county child welfare workers report that legalized marijuana has complicated their jobs. Pictured: A man rolls a joint during a demonstration demanding the approval of the use of marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes in front of the Mexican Senate building in Mexico City on September 28, 2016. (Pedro Pardo, AFP/Getty Images)

Drug-related child welfare cases increase in Colorado – legal weed’s connection unclear

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 emergency-room 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 that 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.

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