Friday, February 8, 2008
Court: Poverty Is No Basis to Assert Juvenile Court Jurisdiction
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Poverty alone—even abject poverty resulting in homelessness—is not a valid basis for assertion of juvenile court jurisdiction, this district’s Court of Appeal has ruled in a decision published yesterday.
Reversing an order by Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Marilyn K. Martinez, Div. Eight ruled Jan. 8 that Martinez erred when she failed to conduct a hearing to determine a father’s fitness to regain custody of his two sons and instead terminated his parental rights because he was impoverished.
Citing an obligation on the part of judges and social workers to guard against “the influence of class and life style biases,” Justice Madeleine Flier wrote for the court that “indigency, but itself, does not make one an unfit parent.”
The man had first asserted his rights after the Department of Children and Family Services detained his eight- and six-year-old sons from their mother’s custody when she was arrested for having sex with a minor. The boys were placed with their paternal grandmother and uncle.
Although the father wanted the boys to live with him, he did not have suitable housing so he agreed they should remain in his mother’s home for the time being, and he was given unmonitored visitation. Despite his inability to assume custody, he maintained that he wanted to gain custody and that he planned to continue working toward that goal and to obtain suitable housing.
The mother pled no contest to allegations set forth in a petition brought under Sec. 300 of the Welfare and Institutions Code, but no allegations were sustained against the father and he was proclaimed to be non-offending. He was given unmonitored day and overnight visits with the children at their grandmother’s home and ordered to participate in a sobriety program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and DCFS was ordered to conduct an evaluation in the event the father obtained housing for himself and the boys.
In the meantime, the father continued to visit the boys regularly, but was unable to secure adequate housing and stopped attending AA meetings regularly, so the boys’ social worker argued that he was “not interested in caring for children full-time.” The juvenile court then terminated reunification services, finding that returning the boys to their parents’ custody would pose a substantial risk of detriment to their well-being.
Citing the Court of Appeal’s decision in In re Gladys L. (2006) 141 Cal.App.4th 845, the father objection to termination of his parental rights, arguing that it violated his due process rights because the juvenile court had never specifically found him to be unfit. He argued that DCFS was required to file a supplemental petition under Sec. 342 alleging that he was unfit, and that he was entitled to a hearing on the issue.
Martinez disagreed, finding that an additional petition was unnecessary and that her prior findings that returning the boys to the father’s custody would be detrimental were equivalent to a finding that the father was not fit to assume custody. Noting that the father had agreed but failed to fully comply with a case plan that required him to attend AA meetings and locate appropriate housing, and finding that the boys were likely to be adopted, she then terminated the father’s parental rights.
However, on appeal, Flier reversed and remanded the order, writing that the juvenile court had violated the father’s due process rights because its decision had not been based on a finding that that the father was unfit.
“Before the state may sever a parent’s rights in his natural child, due process mandates the state’s allegations be supported by evidence that is, at a minimum, clear and convincing,” she said.
Noting that the father had been involved with the sons throughout their lives—both before and during the dependency proceeding—and that he provided financial support, visited regularly and maintained contact with DCFS even when he lacked a place to live, Flier concluded that the state had not met this standard.
Instead, she said, “[t]he record strongly suggests the only reason [the father] did not obtain custody of the boys was his inability to obtain suitable housing for financial reasons.”
Flier rejected DCFS’ argument that the juvenile court’s prior determinations that placing the boys in their father’s custody would be detrimental satisfied the requirement that the court find the father unfit by clear and convincing evidence.
“DCFS may not bootstrap the fact that [the father] was too poor to afford housing, which would not have served as a legitimate ground for removing the boys in the first place, to support findings of detriment, all of which flow directly from the circumstances of [his] poverty and his concomitant willingness to leave his sons in his family’s care while he stayed close, maintained familial ties and worked to raise rent money…,” she wrote.
“The record is devoid of evidence that, but for his inability to find housing, [the father] is incapable of adequately parenting his sons. This would seem to indicate he is a fit parent. At a minimum, it indicates an entitlement to an opportunity to defend himself against a factually specific charge that he is not.”
Presiding Justice Candace Cooper and Justice Laurence D. Rubin joined Flier in her opinion.
The case is In re G.S.R., B197000.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company