Naomi Schaefer Riley joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss the impact of drug use and decriminalization on children. 

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today’s show is Naomi Schaefer Riley. Naomi’s a senior fellow at both the American Enterprise Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum, and she’s a contributor to Deseret News. She writes regularly for City Journal about philanthropy, education, and child welfare. Her work has also appeared all over the place—Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and many other publications. She’s the author of several books, including No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives. Today, in fact, we’re going to discuss her recent work on drug use and child welfare. So Naomi, thanks very much for joining us.

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Thanks for having me, Brian.

Brian Anderson: So the idea that medical professionals should not test mothers or infants for drugs, even if they have reason to believe that the child has been exposed is gaining ground. Many states do not mandate drug testing of parents and newborns, but testing enables medical professionals to identify babies who might be at risk of maltreatment. And I should say that this is not testing mothers or infants for drugs because of racial considerations. So I wonder how big a phenomenon is this? And it just seems crazy to me that you’re going to be putting children at risk because of what is kind of spurious racial ideology here.

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Sure. So the story recently I think really entered the consciousness of a lot of the American public because Mass General Hospital announced last week that they would be limiting testing and also that they would be not automatically reporting families to child protective services if a mother, a new mother, or an infant tested positive for illegal substances.

But frankly, this has been going on kind of under the radar now for a few years. As you said, a lot of the motivation here is to limit racial disparities in the child welfare system, but I think there’s also, as you know, a general new attitude toward drug use and drug abuse in this country. Not only is it becoming more legal in a sort of widespread way, I wrote for City Journal about what’s happened in Portland, Oregon recently, but also just from a cultural perspective, drugs increasingly seen as basically harmless.

So what’s happened is, I think it’s sort of twofold. As I said, on the one hand you have doctors and medical professionals who are not testing even in cases where they clearly suspect that there is drug use going on and that the infant has been prenatally exposed. And then in addition to that, you have evidence of positive tests that are not then being reported to Child Protective Services. There are federal laws requiring this. And some states, like for instance, Connecticut, New Mexico are trying to get around this by just providing de-identified data. So they’ll say to the federal government, “We had this many people test positive, we just don’t know who they are and we’re not going to inform anyone who they are.” And so what’s happened is that those families cannot be provided with any kind of, or mandated to take up any kind of rehabilitative services. And it’s quite dangerous, of course, to send home newborn infants with addicted parents.

Brian Anderson: So is this what you described in some of these pieces as plans of safe care?

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Exactly.

Brian Anderson: So this is basically relying on the parents to say that they will take care of the children even when there might be some evidence, strong evidence that is not necessarily going to happen?

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Right. We’re essentially offering them brochures. “Here’s some rehabilitative services you might want to take up.” But as we all know, the evidence is that there are plenty of people who have substance abuse problems who do not necessarily go and check themselves into treatment right away. And unless there is some kind of incentive, either a legal incentive or an incentive that we will be watching in terms of your treatment of your children, a lot of these parents will not take it up. And just as evidence, it’s interesting. New Mexico has had this policy for a few years recently, and they actually did, to their credit, a kind of follow up a study on how these plans were being used. And almost half of the people who had ostensibly been offered these brochures were unaware of what a plan of safe care even was. So you can tell that it’s having a big impact on their lives.

Brian Anderson: The case is though that medical professionals often believe, and you’ve noted that this is mistaken, that if they do report substance exposure, the child in question is going to be automatically taken into foster care. But that isn’t true, right?

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Yeah, that’s I think although the kind of misunderstanding that a lot of nurses and doctors have, and it’s been propagated by a lot of progressive activists that a report to CPS automatically equals removal. We take in a tiny fraction, removal constitutes a tiny fraction of kids who are reported to child welfare. The vast majority of these cases, they will send CPS to sort of check up on the parents. They will make sure that those parents have enrolled in some kind of drug rehab program, that there are other responsible adults in the household who can take care of the child in case something happens with the addict. So there are all these kinds of supports and services that we are offering long before there is any sense that we need to remove a child into foster care. But this is the popular narrative that’s being offered to medical professionals, unfortunately.

Brian Anderson: Now, one problem with child welfare systems, you’ve written, is that they’re subject to little public oversight. Minnesota is currently trying to shut down its court-appointed special advocate program in which volunteers meet regularly with children in the child welfare system to assess their well-being and then report those findings in court. The CASA program provides a valuable look inside the child welfare system. So, what can these CASA volunteers contribute to children’s welfare that the professional guardians might not? And why is Minnesota trying to eliminate this program?

Naomi Schaefer Riley: So I think at the beginning of our chat, Brian, when you said you were talking about this particular policy about drugs and that it seemed crazy to you, I think the vast majority of the American public is quite sensible when it comes to child-welfare policies. Just for instance, the drug policy alone, somewhere north of 80 percent of Americans think that if a child tests positive for substances at birth, then that family should be reported to child welfare agencies.

Unfortunately, there’s a big divide between what the American public thinks and what child welfare professionals think. And so that’s why I think it’s so important for the whole process to get more sunlight. And one of the ways that that happens is through the CASA program, so you can volunteer, and this is true in all 50 states, to essentially represent, not necessarily from a legal perspective, but represent the state of the child and the interests of the child in a family court proceeding.

So it means that you would go visit the child if they’re in a foster home or if they’re in the biological home, but are in a child welfare proceeding, talk to the child, maybe play some games with the child, understand what the environment is. If that child is old enough to talk to you, they can tell you things about what’s happened. And then when you go into court, the judge can say, “Tell us what you think is going on with the child.” Often, the lawyers who are supposed to be representing children don’t have a whole lot of time for these kids. They often have very large caseloads, and often they just sort of go along with whatever the child welfare agency is saying. And when I tell you the child welfare agencies have some pretty wacky ideas about what makes a safe situation for a child, I am not exaggerating.

Obviously, a lot of these courts have really moved toward family preservation and family reunification at all costs. And so the CASA is sort of the one kind of independent person in the room. They haven’t been paid by anyone. They are volunteering their time, and really they’re just supposed to talk to the child and explain what’s going on in that child’s life.

Now, Minnesota, I think for a couple of reasons, has decided that they would really like to eliminate this part of their court process. They think that this is best left up to the professionals. They know better. You wouldn’t have an amateur representing anyone in a murder case, so why would you have an amateur walking into court like this? But I do think that it’s really important. A lot of the child welfare cases are closed to the public. We can’t find out what’s going on in those cases for reasons of family privacy. And so I think it’s very good to have some member of the public there saying, “Wait a second. What you’re doing might not be good for the child. And to a kind of ordinary observer, this seems insane.” And so there now seems to be a big debate in Minnesota over whether that program is going to be able to survive. But I’m heartened to see that a lot of people are pushing back.

Brian Anderson: That’s good. Yeah. You recently traveled for City Journal to Portland, a city, which I think it’s fair to say, has now become infamous for its rampant drug use and significant homelessness problem. Several years ago, Oregon legalized the possession of small amounts of drugs, and within a ten-day period last year, three young kids in Portland, as you note, died after coming into contact with what police said was fentanyl. So we’re starting to see that this legalization program is having a significant negative impact on child welfare. So I wonder if you could tell us a bit about what you saw in Portland. You’ve written about it for us. What lessons does the city offer about drug decriminalization and legalization in terms of children?

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Sure. So I mean, on its surface, it won’t surprise anyone to know. Portland is as, certainly was in last summer, as apocalyptic as everyone says, you didn’t have to walk a few blocks or wait more than a few minutes to see shoplifting, public defecation, people lighting up crack pipes in public on street corners, a lot of just lawlessness. But one of the reasons that I went there was really, I think there is a kind of unseen crisis going on with the kids there. I was contacted by a couple of folks who do homeless outreach, in particular, who had seen small children living in homeless encampments. These are alongside highways or in certain basically backyards in Portland. And the parents are sort of hiding the kids, and the police have no ability to enter the tent that they are living in. And sometimes these homeless outreach folks would call Child Protective Services and say, “I saw a four-year-old walking around this homeless encampment.”

Of course, first they would wait on hold for 45 minutes, but then they were told that there essentially was nothing they could do. They were told that, for instance, and I quote, “Poverty is not a crime.” So essentially, Child Protective Services’ attitude was the people who are living in these encampments, this is a choice that they’re making. And regardless of whether you think this is a choice, adults are making the idea that a four-year-old is going to be safe walking around a homeless encampment full of addicted men. I think any person in their right mind would think that was crazy.

And so I talked to a lot of people who’ve spent time in these camps trying to understand the scope of the problem. It began probably during Covid, you had more and more kids who were not on the radar anymore because they weren’t attending school because school wasn’t happening.

And then you have these parents who basically have decided that this is apparently the lifestyle they want to lead, in the view of Portland’s local government. And there’s no accountability. Because the police cannot arrest you for these small violations, and because it’s legal now, Child Protective Services has trouble getting involved too, even if they wanted to. These parents can continue to parent while using fentanyl.

And the fentanyl, as I learned, is particularly dangerous. We’ve seen in this country and in Portland in particular, a rise in pediatric poisonings due to fentanyl. There are a lot of very small kinds of brightly colored blue pills that people have to take in order to maintain their high for an entire day. And if you have a toddler running around, it’s very easy for them to get their hands on them and use them. And the number of Narcan administrations to children under three has been skyrocketing across the country.

So I think you’re seeing the particularly harmful effects with fentanyl, but frankly, all these other drugs are presenting a problem for kids too. We’ve also seen a rise in unsafe sleep deaths because parents are intoxicated. So you have a situation where a child is suffocated because the parent is so out of it that they don’t realize what they’re doing to the infant next to them. So the results are clear. Obviously, as people have probably read, Portland is walking back a little bit of this policy, but I think it will take years to undo, decades maybe, to undo the damage that has been done by this policy, particularly for kids.

Brian Anderson: Well, thanks very much, Naomi. As always, your reporting on this is really exemplary and you’re one of the few people who are writing about it across the country. So thank you very much for coming on. And readers can read a lot of this material on the City Journal website at We’ll link to Naomi’s author page in the description, and you can also find her on X @NaomiSRiley. You can also find City Journal on X @CityJournal and on Instagram at @CityJournal_MI. And as usual, if you like what you’ve heard on the podcast, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. Naomi, always great to talk to you and to have you on 10 Blocks. Thanks very much.

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Thanks so much, Brian.

Photo: Halfpoint/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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