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Case of the Month Archive

November 2021

The justices agreed with mother in a dependency proceeding that juvenile court may have applied inappropriate factors when terminating her parental rights. . .

 

In a reversal, the First District held that due to juvenile court's "conclusory" factual findings on the issue of the beneficial parent-child relationship exception and in light of the recent holding in In re Caden C. [enumerating elements of beneficial parent-child relationship exception and holding that a parent who fails to comply with case plan is not categorically barred from establishing exception], the panel cannot be certain that the juvenile court did not consider inappropriate factors when deciding to terminate mother's parental rights.

 

In re J.D.

(September 29, 2021)

Court of Appeal 1 Civil A161973 (Div 2) 70 Cal.App.5th 833, 284 Cal.Rptr.3d 608, 2021 FA 2004, per Stewart, J. San Francisco County, Breall, J., order reversed. For Appellant (R.T.): Rachel D. Belden. For Respondent (San Francisco Human Services Agency): Kimiko Burton and Jeremy Sugerman. CFLP §G.168.0.85.

 

A bad beginning. . .
J.D. was removed from his mother, R.T., shortly after he turned three years old after R.T. was involved in two violent altercations, both of which occurred in the presence of J.D. and one that resulted in J.D. being knocked to the ground near the edge of a train platform. San Francisco Human Services Agency (Agency) commenced a dependency action and in September 2018 the juvenile court sustained allegations that R.T. failed to protect J.D. The juvenile court bypassed services to the father due to his incarceration and ordered reunification services for R.T. Meanwhile, J.D. was placed with R.T.'s relative, C.J.

R.T. received two years of reunification services and at an 18-month review hearing, the juvenile court set the matter for a W&I C §366.26 hearing upon the Agency's recommendation to terminate R.T.'s parental rights. The Agency recommended terminating R.T.'s parental rights because "'[R.T.] continues to use [J.D.] as a pawn to get back at [C.J.] without regard to how it will impact [J.D.].'" Specifically, R.T. posted derogatory and threatening messages about C.J. on social media. One post involved R.T. encouraging J.D. to hold a toy gun as if he were going to shoot someone. These posts were interwoven with anonymous referrals that C.J. was neglecting or physically abusing J.D., each of which the Agency determined was either unfounded or inconclusive. Meanwhile, R.T. continued to demonstrate bouts of anger and had periodic physical altercations with the caregivers of her children, one of which resulted in a restraining order against R.T.

On January 15, 2021, the juvenile court held a contested W&I C §366.26 hearing. The Agency's report recommended C.J. adopt J.D. The report further noted that "'[J.D.] has a good relationship with his mother. [J.D.] and [R.T.] have been having virtual visits since March of 2020.'" R.T.'s social worker confirmed that R.T. has had regular visitations with J.D. and that J.D. wants to have a relationship with R.T. R.T.'s therapist also provided a letter that R.T.'s children "'had a strong affectionate relationship'" with R.T. The juvenile court made only a few factual findings regarding the beneficial parent-child relationship exception, acknowledging that J.D. has a positive relationship with R.T. but finding that "their relationship did not 'amount to [a] parental bond' and that 'severing the relationship that does exist would not be so detrimental as to outweigh permanency for [J.D.].'" The juvenile court terminated R.T.'s parental rights and designated C.J. the prospective adoptive parent. R.T. appealed and the First District reversed.

 

The beneficial parent-child relationship exception. . .
The justices first cited the recent holding of In re Caden C. (2021) 11 Cal.5th 614, 278 Cal.Rptr.3d 872, in which the Supreme Court enumerated the three elements of the beneficial parent-child relationship exception of W&I C §366.26(c)(1)(B)(i) and held that a parent who fails to comply with the case plan is not categorically barred from establishing the exception. The justices noted that per In re Caden C., the three elements are: (1) that the parent has regular visitation and contact with the child; (2) that the child has a substantial, positive, emotional attachment to the parent, the kind of which the child benefits from continuing the relationship; and (3) that terminating that attachment would be detrimental to the child even when balanced against the countervailing benefit of a new, adoptive home.

After noting briefly that the first element was easily met, the justices began their analysis with the second element of the exception, which they found R.T. met for several reasons. First, at the time of termination of R.T.'s parental rights, J.D. had lived with his mother for over half of his life and reports from social workers and R.T.'s therapist supported the conclusion that "J.D.'s attachment to mother continued through the [dependency] case." More specifically, R.T.'s therapist noted that J.D. and R.T. "'have a positive and affectionate relationship.'" Second, the justices were persuaded by virtual visitation logs that "read almost like a verbatim transcript of what transpired" and demonstrated R.T.'s expression of love and affection for J.D. Noting that these expressions of love do not alone establish the exception, the justices found that expressions of love and affection are relevant to determining the parent-child bond. Third, J.D. actively engaged with R.T. during his virtual visits, updating her about his life, asking her about her life, and asking her to move in with him. Fourth, the justices rejected the Agency's argument that J.D. looked to C.J. for support and structure, noting that in order to prove the beneficial parent-child relationship exception, a parent does not need to show her attachment with her child is his "primary bond" and noted that "[a] child's emotional attachments are not a zero-sum game." And finally, although the justices acknowledged evidence that R.T. engaged in some inappropriate behavior in the presence of J.D., they found that her behavior did not have a lasting impact on J.D. and her behavior was fully resolved by the time of the W&I §366.26 hearing.

The panel next held that since it is "unclear whether and to what extent the juvenile court considered improper factors at the second step of its analysis, it is unnecessary to address whether there also was an abuse of discretion at the third step." In so finding, the justices identified specific juvenile court rulings that seemed to run afoul of that direction of In re Caden C. Specifically, the justices noted that several times during trial, the juvenile court sustained objections by the Agency that prevented R.T.'s attorney from eliciting testimony from the social worker regarding what life would be like for J.D. without his mother. The panel reiterated the statement from the Supreme Court that "[c]ourts must determine 'how the child would be affected by losing the parental relationship-in effect what life would be like for the child in a new adoptive home without the parent in the child's life.'"

Ultimately, the panel agreed with R.T. that the juvenile court's ruling on the second element of the exception was "conclusory and thus problematic" and that since the juvenile court did not find that a beneficial relationship existed, it must not have properly weighed the relative harms and benefits of losing that relationship. Accordingly, the First District reversed the order terminating R.T.'s parental rights and remained the matter to the juvenile court to conduct a new W&I C §366.26 hearing consistent with its opinion and that of In re Caden C.

 

 

COMMENT:

  

In re Caden C. was decided after the juvenile court terminated R.T.'s parental rights, so the lower court did not have the benefit of the Supreme Court's clarification on the beneficial parent-child relationship exception. In part this explains why the justices could not be certain that the juvenile court applied the exception properly and also why they used softer language in reversing the ruling. For example, instead of characterizing the lower court's decision as error or abuse of discretion, the panel held that it is "unclear" whether the lower court applied improper factors.

 

Library References
16 Witkin, Summary of Cal. Law (11th ed. 2021), Juvenile, §474

 

 

 
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