No heightened or additional showing is required to establish the parental-benefit exception of Welf. & Inst.C. §366.26(c)(1)(B)(i). . .
In reversal, the California Supreme Court holds that the parental-benefit exception per Welf. & Inst.C. §366.26(c)(1)(B)(i) does not require heightened or additional showing in order to establish the exception; neither must a parent show that they are substantially complying with the case plan in order to establish the exception.
In re Caden C.
(May 27, 2021)
Supreme Court of California, S255839 11 Cal.5th 614, 278 Cal.Rptr.3d 872, per Cuellar, J. (Cantil-Sakauye, C.J.; Corrigan, J.; Liu, J.; Kruger, J.; Groban, J.; and Jenkins, J.). San Francisco County: Wiley, J. For Appellant (SFHSA): Office of the City of Attorney and Jeremy Sugerman. For Respondent (Christine C.): Nicole Williams and Leslie A. Barry. For Respondent (Brian C.): Michelle Engelhardt Danley. CFLP §168.0.85.
Caden C. was born in 2009 and lived with his mother until September 2013, when the Marin County Health and Human Services Department removed Caden from her custody because the two had been living in a car and his mother admitted to drug use and suicidal ideation. Caden was placed with Ms. H, a nonrelative extended family member. The juvenile court ordered Caden to remain in foster care and for mother to address substance abuse and mental health issues as well as attend parenting classes. At a July 2014 hearing, the juvenile court retained jurisdiction but placed Caden with his mother. His mother and Caden then moved to San Francisco.
In June 2016, after mother relapsed, the San Francisco Human Services Agency (SFHSA) removed Caden from his mother's custody and filed a supplemental dependency petition. SFHSA placed Caden with Ms. H once again. Meanwhile, his mother reentered residential treatment and filed a petition to regain custody. After the juvenile court denied this petition, Caden's mother abandoned her drug treatment. In May 2017, the juvenile court reduced mother's visitation with Caden to once per month and set a Welf. & Inst.C. §366.26 hearing.
At the Welf. & Inst.C. §366.26 hearing, SFHSA argued that Caden was likely to be adopted, his mother's parental rights should be terminated, and the juvenile court should enter a permanent plan of adoption. SFHSA's expert, Dr. Lieberman, who did not interview or meet Caden, but who had participated in administrative reviews of Caden's case, testified that Caden "has a very strong emotional bond with his mother" but that Caden needs ongoing support to address the trauma developed during his early years with his mother and that Ms. H. could provide the necessary support and comfort such that terminating his relationship with his mother would not be harmful to Caden. A social worker for SFHSA also testified that mother discussed her drug treatment in front of Caden, and, as a result, the Caden now talked about drugs and alcohol in detail.
Meanwhile, mother argued that terminating her relationship with Caden would be harmful to him. Mother's expert witness, Dr. Molesworth, testified that Caden has an "intense bond" with his mother and losing contact with her would compound certain traumatic effects and could result in significant acting out during Caden's adolescence. Dr. Molesworth concluded that although Caden has a positive relationship with Ms. H., terminating his relationship with his mother would be detrimental to Caden. In her testimony, mother expressed her fear that terminating their relationship would cause Caden to feel abandoned. On cross-examination, mother admitted to having an existing meth addiction.
After this four day hearing, the juvenile court found that Caden would likely be adopted but that mother had established the parental-benefit exception per Welf. & Inst.C. §366.26(c)(1)(B)(i), precluding termination of her parental rights. The juvenile court found that mother met each element of the three-pronged parental-benefit exception: (1) mother maintained regular visitation with Caden; (2) Caden benefited from the continuing relationship with his mother; and (3) termination of this relationship would be detrimental to Caden. Thus, the juvenile court declined to terminate mother's parental rights and ordered Caden to remain in foster care while Ms. H. considered legal guardianship. SFHSA appealed, and the First District reversed, holding that due to mother's ongoing struggle with substance abuse, no reasonable court could find Caden's relationship with his mother outweighed the benefits of adoption. The Supreme Court of California granted review and reversed the First District.
Cleaning house. . .
The justices first addressed the issue whether heightened or additional showing is required to establish the parental-benefit exception. They noted that after the legislature amended Welf. & Inst.C. §366.26(c)(1)(B) to require a parent to show a "compelling reason for determining that termination would be detrimental to the child," some courts have reasoned that the new language requires a parent to show a heightened level of harm or additional compelling reason in order to establish the parental-benefit exception. But after examining the legislative history of the amendment, the justices here determined that this interpretation is incorrect. In fact, the legislature added the "compelling" language to the statute merely to comply with the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA). This federal statute required a "compelling reason" in certain situations where a social service agency did not move to terminate parental rights or where a court declined to terminate such rights. The ASFA, however, did not specify what constitutes a "compelling reason," so the legislature determined that the existing reasons in the statute satisfy the language in question. Thus, the amendment to the language of Welf. & Inst.C. §366.26(c)(1)(B) did not add a heightened or additional compelling element to the parental-benefit exception. In finding that no heightened or additional showing is required to establish the exception, the California Supreme Court disapproved opinions that have held otherwise, including In re Logan B., 3 Cal.App.5th 1000, 207 Cal.Rptr.3d 837; In re Jasmine D., 78 Cal.App.4th 1339, 93 Cal.Rptr.2d 644; and In re Casey D., 70 Cal.App.4th 38, 82 Cal.Rptr.2d 426.
The justices next turned to whether a parent's ongoing struggles with issues that led to the dependency action can bar that parent's showing of the parental-benefit exception. The justices held that there is no basis in the statute to find that such consideration may prevent application of the exception and that such a categorical bar "would effectively write the exception out of the statute." Specifically, the justices noted that when a juvenile court holds a Welf. & Inst.C. §366.26 hearing, it necessarily terminates reunification services for the parent precisely because that parent has not been successful in maintaining the reunification plan. Calling such a categorical bar to the exception a "paradoxical proposition," the justices held that parents do not need to show they are "actively involved in maintaining their sobriety or complying substantially with their case plan" in order to establish the parental-benefit exception, disapproving cases that hold otherwise, including In re Breanna S., 8 Cal.App.5th 636, 214 Cal.Rptr.3d 98; In re Noah G., 247 Cal.App.4th 1292, 203 Cal.Rptr.3d 91; and In re Marcelo B., 209 Cal.App.4th 635, 146 Cal.Rptr.3d 908.
Finally, the justices resolved the standard of the review for courts considering application of the parental-benefit exception, finding that the first two elements of the exception [whether there has been regular visitation and whether a beneficial relationship exists] shall be reviewed under the substantial evidence standard while the last element [whether termination of parental rights would be detrimental to the child] is more appropriately reviewed under a hybrid approach. The justices noted that factual determinations related to the third element shall be reviewed under the substantial evidence standard, but the ultimate decision whether termination of parental rights would be detrimental to the child requires a balancing of these factual determinations and must be reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Accordingly, the justices reversed the judgment of the First District.
In a footnote, the justices noted that at the time oral argument was made in this case, the juvenile court held a new Welf. & Inst.C. §366.26 hearing and terminated mother's parental rights, making the court's decision moot as to this case in particular. However, the justices exercised discretion to retain and decide the case since their decision affects "issues of public importance, capable of repetition, yet tending to evade review."
16 Witkin, Summary of Cal. Law (11th ed. 2021) Juvenile, §§474, 472