Originally published by Ladybud Magazine
Savannah Lackey’s thin fingers rifle through stacks of neat, hand-written notes. She is vigilant, stunned and weary. She has been combing the notes over and over looking for the loophole that will reverse the nightmare she is living in. It has been 67 days since she has had her son, 3, and daughter, 11 months, forcibly removed from her custody at gunpoint.
“I have kind of rolled over, I do whatever they tell me to do. I mean, these are my children. I will do whatever they want me to do to get my children back,” she says. “I have heard that going public with my story could hurt my case. I have also been told it could help.”
She knows how valuable her children are to the county that took them and that without a good lawyer to take up the fight she may not stand a chance to get them back. Still, she grasps what little faith she has left in the system that if she continues to jump through all the hoops they place in front of her, she will get her children back.
Savannah’s daughter, 11 months, remains in foster care and is unable to breastfeed because it makes the foster mother uncomfortable.
Just this last week, she was allowed to meet the foster parent taking care of her children. Originally, they were put in separate homes and Savannah was told she could not see them until they “settled in,” although no time length was given as to when that would be. “[The foster parent] refrained from eye contact, she didn’t really listen to anything I said.” Lackey has recently been told she can no longer breastfeed because the foster mother said the breast milk made the baby fussy last time and that her infant daughter kept trying to feed from the foster mother’s breasts instead of the bottle. Her older child has been instructed to call the foster parents “mom and dad.”
She is desperate and Charles King, the children’s father, whose home Savannah and the children were staying at when they were raided for legally growing marijuana, has reluctantly offered to give up his parental rights if the children can just go home to their mother.
Savannah and Charles coparent the children and have been attempting to reunite the family together.
Savannah documents every interaction with law enforcement, the courts and Child Protective Services (CPS) in both Tehama county (where the raid happened) and Sonoma County, where she lives. Handwritten notes are neatly stacked by date—from every phone conversation or personal interaction she has had with a representative of each one of these services. The real fear lingers that if she gives up the fight, they can both lose the children for good.
Both Charles and Savannah are facing felony counts of cultivating marijuana, possession for sale, and two counts of felony child abuse—charges that carry anywhere between 7-20 years each if convicted. They admit to growing marijuana for medicinal purposes, after all they live in Northern California and believed they were operating within the bounds of State and County law.
Savannah’s children remain in protective custody.
The two child abuse charges were originally one for “child endangerment” but were raised to charges of “child abuse” on June 11th. Savannah asked what the legal difference was and was told by a public defender the wording was just semantics, that it was the same thing.
In fact, child abuse and child endangerment are two very distinct legal charges. Child endangerment is when a child may not have been physically harmed but is thought to be in a situation where there is potential for harm. Child abuse is actual harm to a child including but not limited to: striking, slapping, pushing, burning and tossing an object at a child.
THE TEHAMA COUNTY RAID
On May 30, at 7:00 am, Savannah and Charles were just waking up, their infant daughter was awake in bed with them and their 3-year-old son was still asleep. Savannah heard rustling outside and urged Charles to look. Charles saw that it was the police and immediately picked the baby up and held her close to him.
“He was holding her and we both wanted to do everything but we knew we could do nothing, so we walked to the front door,” Savannah says. Before she could open the door, it was kicked in and officers rushed in the home.
“They came in with [large automatic] guns, right away I put my hands up and told them I had kids, my baby was right there and my son was still asleep in the other room. They just kept yelling ‘On the floor! On the floor’ I just kept saying my son is in the other room sleeping as I lowered myself to the floor, put my face down and hands behind my back as I was instructed.”
“Charles was still holding the baby and they said ‘drop it.’” Charles gently placed the baby on the floor and put his face down and arms behind him. Savannah and Charles were cuffed and placed against a wall while the police spent the next hour tossing the home. “They trashed it,” she says. No warrant was presented or announced. Later, when they were bailed out and returned home, a warrant had been dropped near the door.
“There weren’t guns and stacks of cash, the children were crying, I kept asking them if they felt good about what they were doing, breaking up our family.” Paraphernalia and dried cannabis that had been stored securely in the laundry room was placed in reach of the children and the police proceeded to take pictures of her son with it. Savannah and Charles remained cuffed, and watched hopelessly as the photos were taken. CPS was called and the children were removed from Savannah’s custody.
“We don’t smoke [cigarettes], we don’t keep alcohol or prescription drugs in the home.” Savannah’s family lives a natural lifestyle, they eat only organic foods and avoid drugs and tobacco. Both Charles and Savannah have a doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana.
A couple of days earlier there had been a “flyover”—Tehama and neighboring Butte County are the last places in the state where law enforcement still uses aircraft to seek out marijuana gardens. Charles and Savannah assumed they were just counting plants and that if something was out of place, they would get a citation or notice to fix something on the property. They did not pack up and leave—in the new paradigm of legal medical marijuana in California it is not uncommon to have law enforcement fully aware marijuana is being grown and not use department resources to enforce federal marijuana laws.
Growers in Tehama County have been given a false sense of security due to Sheriff Dave Hencrett’s seemingly permissive and cooperative stance on California’s Proposition 215, a voter-passed initiative that legalized marijuana for medical uses in 1996. The initiative itself was one paragraph long and intentionally did not prescribe arbitrary guidelines, restrictions or numbers about its implementation.
A couple of days before the raid, Charles and Savannah attended the Rancho Tehama Community Marijuana Meeting, which was being held by the Sherriff and a county supervisor in order to discuss the regulations marijuana farmers needed to comply with in order to be considered legal for the county. Penalties for not following the guidelines were fines or notices to make changes to the garden or the property they were planting on.
Savannah was terrified of attending the meeting, she felt as if it was a trap for law enforcement to get growers to identify themselves and collect license plate numbers. Charles had faith in the system and wanted to talk to the Sherrif to make sure everything he was doing was compliant with the new regulations.
“Some of the officers that [enacted the raid] were in the room that day, some in plain clothes.” Savannah says.
Charles immediately complied with guidelines such as requiring a six-foot non-transparent fence to deter thieves. “The cops said that because the plants were outdoors, we were asking to be invaded… this is a mobile home with an old Subaru in the front yard, no one wants to rob us.” She ironically notes that the fence is also what led the police to raid the home. The police said the fence alerted others he was growing marijuana, which made it a danger to the rest of the neighborhood because it would attract armed thieves.
Neighbor’s homes were also raided that morning, but none with children as young as Savannah’s and Charles’. Currently, only Savannah and Charles are facing felony charges and CPS was not called in to remove other, older, children from custody on the block.
There was less than a pound of dried marijuana in the home, away from the reach of children, and all the plants that were confiscated and destroyed were in the “vegetative” growing stage, meaning they had not yet produced mature flowers. Plants without mature flowers don’t have street value.
The warrant left by the door contained only a description of the residence, but no evidence of probable cause.
Savannah has Grave’s Disease, a disease in which the patient has both hyper andhypothyroidism at the same time. If she cannot regulate her food intake she has trouble maintaining a balanced weight. She was originally prescribed pharmaceutical medications but found a natural organic diet and marijuana to assist with anxiety, mindful eating and appetite helped her keep the condition completely regulated.
She has stopped using marijuana to pass drug tests and get her children back. She is now experiencing insomnia, extreme anxiety and other symptoms directly evident of the disease. Both Charles and Savannah have medical marijuana prescriptions in the state of California.
CHILD PROTECTIVE SERVICES: AN ATM FOR POOR COUNTIES
Of California’s 58 counties, 10 have rates of child removal (in regards to the overall population under the age of 18 in each county) up to 200 times higher than both the state and national average (0.005% of total populations under 18). An analysis of these numbers shows a shocking trend. The 10 counties with the highest rates of child removal to foster care and adoption (greater than 1% of the total population under 18) are Butte, Calaveras, Del Norte, Mendocino, Plumas, Shasta, Siskiyou, Tehama, Trinity and Tuolumne Counties—all counties in Northern California known for growing marijuana.
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau and Lucille Packard KidFacts (Stanford University). For full removal numbers please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Shocking still is the absence of major population centers such as Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco-Oakland and Bakersfield (between 0.5-0.9%).
The conflict between state and federal law has provided cash-strapped public agencies a relatively easy way to generate revenue—through asset and child forfeiture of people growing marijuana in low-population areas.
Local agencies receivebetween $2,000-$4,000 in federal funding per child adopted once they have been removed and placed in foster care. Agencies can receive up to $8,000 in incentive pay once an older child is adopted. Young children are easier to place into adoptive homes. The federal government spends $4.5 billion a year to fund local agencies. Once in foster care, children are11 times more likely to be sexually abused and twice as likely to be physically abused.
Savannah’s children are young, and up until they entered foster care were in excellent health. They were fed a diet of organic, whole foods and their development was monitored closely by Savannah. Growth charts show for her daughter, who is 11-months-old, that before being taken into foster care she was in the 60th percentile of growth for weight, she is now in the 30th percentile. For height she was in the 90th percentile, now she is in the 11th percentile.
Savannah’s pediatricians gave documents to CPS on the condition of the children and recommended she be allowed to breastfeed her daughter. Both the children had a regular intimate relationship with their pediatrician and were closely monitored for growth and development. The children have always been in good health and provided with safe, proper and sufficient clothing, housing, medical treatment and food. CPS workers have missed taking her daughter to an appointment with her pediatrician and instead taken her to one of their choosing.
Her daughter has since contracted an ear infection and both children regularly have colds or running noses when Savannah visits, which they did not have prior to their removal to foster care.
Savannah has been informed that if she does what she is told she will get her children back. Two months later Savannah still does not have the children back and is aware the county may be preparing to adopt them.
Savannah has put in a relative identification for placement consideration for the kids to be placed with a non-related extended family member who is willing to take them. There has been no attempt made to place the children with this family member. Her home was not checked by Sonoma County CPS workers until two months after her children were taken into custody.
“They act like they want to help you, but in reality what they are doing is handing you a shovel and telling you to dig a hole so they can bury you,” she says.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Savannah with her son on a supervised visit.
At the local level, many decisions as it pertains to a child’s health and welfare are made by individual workers. In many of the counties where the rates are the highest, people are either poor or growing small amounts of marijuana to survive. Local government agencies, with federal backing, are incentivized to remove more children in order to bring in funding and prove their job is necessary.
It is hard to believe the intentions of those who enacted the raids and child removals are intentionally malicious, but they unknowingly use the dangers of marijuana prohibition to justify their actions.
While no one disputes the need for these agencies to exist, much like police and firefighters it is essential to have these community resources, conflicts with state and federal laws as well as financial incentives by the federal government have encouraged rampant corruption at the expense of society’s most vulnerable victims—children.
Until the federal government legalizes marijuana, threat of child removal will continue to exist in all 50 states, regardless of voter initiative and public opinion.