ACS Agrees to Pay Bronx Mother Who Sued Agency for Racial Discrimination Against Black and Brown Families in NYC

Agreement resolves first-of-its-kind lawsuit to enforce New York’s cannabis legalization law, which ACS violated when it separated Ms. Rivers from her newborn baby 


Michael Paul Jackson, The Bronx Defenders, 

Issara Baumann, Arnold & Porter,  

The Bronx, NY – Today, The Bronx Defenders and Arnold & Porter announced a resolution with New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) on behalf of Chanetto Rivers, who was forcibly separated from her newborn based on a positive cannabis test. ACS will pay Ms. Rivers $75,001 plus attorney’s fees to resolve one of two cases brought by The Bronx Defenders and Arnold & Porter against ACS for targeting Black and Brown families in New York City under the guise of child safety. 

Shortly after Ms. Rivers gave birth to her baby boy in August 2021, ACS forcibly separated her from her newborn at the hospital. ACS based the separation on a positive cannabis test, even though cannabis was legal in New York at the time and state law forbids family separation on that basis alone. Even after a judge intervened to reunite the family, ACS continued to pursue its case against Ms. Rivers for months, before finally withdrawing the charges. Ms. Rivers sued ACS to pursue accountability for its widely reported discriminatory practices in violation of the State’s cannabis legalization law.  

“I didn’t just bring this lawsuit for myself, but for every Black family that ACS has ripped apart,” said Chanetto Rivers. “They know what they did was wrong. And now, they’re on notice.” 

Ms. Rivers’ case was filed on May 17, 2023 in federal court in Manhattan. The offer of judgment resolves Ms. Rivers case before ACS was required to turn over documents about its racially biased practices.  

For years, ACS has chosen to operate in secrecy and hide from accountability, rather than face the parents and families it polices, surveils, and separates every day, just as it did with results of a 2020 racial equity audit it kept under wraps until The Bronx Defenders uncovered it last year. 

“We are glad that Ms. Rivers was able to call attention to ACS’s deplorable history of racial discrimination against marginalized families – particularly those in the Bronx,” said Niji Jain, Director of the Impact Litigation Practice at The Bronx Defenders. “This resolution shows that ACS can no longer hide from accountability, and we will continue to fight alongside New Yorkers until ACS’s deliberate targeting of Black and Brown families ends.” 

The Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) was enacted to legalize recreational cannabis use and undo the devastating consequences of the failed “War on Drugs,” waged largely against Black and Brown communities. The MRTA says that parents may not be separated from their children solely because of cannabis use. Yet in Ms. Rivers’ case, that is exactly what ACS did, six months after the law went into effect, and then pressed on with its case against Ms. Rivers for months even after a judge intervened to reunite the family. In addition to defying state law, ACS also violated its own guidance from 2019 directing caseworkers not to remove a child or file a case against a parent for a positive cannabis test. 

ACS’s targeting of Ms. Rivers, and its blatant disregard for state law, illustrate the agency’s reliance on racist and harmful tropes about Black mothers who use drugs, and are a direct result of the agency’s indifference to its well-documented racial bias problem. 

“We hope that this case can serve as a model for others who want to fight back against ACS’s unlawful treatment of New York City families, including families who have been separated, policed, and surveilled for lawful cannabis use,” said Michael Schissel from Arnold & Porter.