Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, December 21, 2007


Page 1


S.C. Rejects Extended Reunification Efforts for Dependent Infants


By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer


The California Supreme Court yesterday resolved a split between appellate courts by making it easier to terminate the rights of parents of dependant infants.

A juvenile court considering whether to continue reunification services between a child under three years old and a parent from whose custody he was removed may only examine the likelihood of a successful reunification during the time period leading up to the next review hearing, even if the hearing is less than six months away, the court ruled unanimously.

The court held that Welfare and Institutions Code Sec. 366.21(e)’s presumption limiting evaluation of reunification services to a six-month period does not grant juvenile courts’  jurisdiction to consider the next six months if that period extends beyond the next required review hearing.

Writing for the court, Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar said:

“In deciding whether to extend services, a juvenile court should consider only whether, if those services were provided, reunification would be sufficiently probable according to the operable standard… between then and the next hearing.”

Positive Drug Test

The case revolved around a child born five weeks prematurely in October of 2005 who was removed from his mother’s custody after the child and the mother tested positive for methamphetamine.  After the mother admitted to using drugs throughout the pregnancy, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services removed the child and placed him in foster care.

When a child is removed from a parent’s custody, the juvenile court ordinarily must order child welfare services for the minor and the parent to facilitate reunification of the family.  For a child under three years of age at the time of removal, reunification services are presumptively limited to six months.

A child’s status, and the question whether reunification services should be extended, must then be reconsidered at least once every six months. The absolute maximum period is 18 months, provided the court determines, at both six- and 12-month review hearings, that continuation of services is warranted.

Failure to Appear

Despite receiving prior notification, the mother failed to appear at a jurisdictional and dispositional hearing scheduled for Nov. 28, 2005 before Los Angeles Superior Court Referee  Jacqueline Lewis.  As a result, Lewis found the allegations of drug abuse to be true and ordered that reunification services be provided.

Due first to the county’s inability to locate the mother, and then later to her presence in custody of the Los Angeles County Drug Court Program, the six-month review hearing was ultimately delayed until Aug. 16, 2006 – almost nine months after the first hearing.

When the hearing was finally conducted, Lewis terminated reunification services, finding that, while the mother had made “minimal” progress in addressing the problems that had led to removal, returning the child would create a substantial risk of detriment to his safety, protection, physical and emotional well-being.  She also found that the county had provided reasonable reunification services.

The mother then brought a writ petition arguing that Sec. 366.21(e) required the juvenile court to consider the entire six-month period following the August six-month review hearing in deciding whether reunification services should be continued, and not merely the period leading up to a 12-month review hearing in November of 2006.

Split in Authority

In a published opinion, the Court of Appeal denied relief.  Acknowledging an existing split between Dawnel D. v. Superior Court (1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 393, which supported the mother’s position, and Jessica A. v. Superior Court (2004) 124 Cal.App.4th 636, which supported the juvenile court’s approach, the Court of Appeal adopted the latter.

On appeal, Werdegar agreed.  Noting that the juvenile court lacked jurisdiction to order services extending beyond the next review hearing, and that delays in the timing of one hearing should not affect the time of subsequent hearings or the length of services to be ordered, she wrote that the statute “should be read in favor of promoting prompt rather than delayed resolutions.”

“There is no rational basis for concluding that a parent whose six-month hearing is delayed to the nine- or 10-month mark should be eligible for an extension to the 15- or 16-month mark of either services or reunification consideration, while another parent whose six-month hearing is timely held must demonstrate a substantial probability of being able to reunite by the 12-month mark,” she said.

Representatives of the county did not return calls seeking comment.

However, the mother’s attorney, Merrill Lee Toole, told the MetNews that she was disappointed with the ruling.  She said that the net result of the decision was to make it harder for families with children under three to achieve reunification because they were left with such a narrow window of time.

While she conceded that her client had harmed herself by disappearing for a significant period of time after the child had been removed, Toole said that the decision was not “family-friendly” because it would mean that other families would be split up as the result of “slip-ups” and other situations that were not their fault.

The case is Tonya M. v. Superior Court (Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services), 07 S.O.S. 7437.


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