Thursday, July 24, 2008
Court Rules Poverty No Basis to Terminate Parental Rights
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Poverty alone—even when it results in homelessness or less than ideal housing arrangements—is not a sufficient ground to deprive a mother of parental rights to her children, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Building on the holding earlier this year by this district’s Div. Eight that poverty alone is not a valid basis for assertion of juvenile court jurisdiction, Div. Three concluded that a trial court erred when it terminated a woman’s parental rights to her two children solely on the ground that she was unable to provide stable, suitable housing, and reversed the order.
The Orange County Social Services Agency filed a juvenile dependency petition in 2005 alleging that the woman—who had previously admitted being homeless to the agency—had physically abused her two children, respectively five and two years old, and left them with a caretaker without any means of support, medical consent, or information as to her whereabouts or when she would return.
The petition also alleged that the children’s father had abused their mother in the children’s presence, and that he had also abused one of the children.
The children were placed in a foster home and Orange Superior Court Commissioner Dennis Keough, sustaining the allegations, found that he had jurisdiction, declared the children dependents of the juvenile court, and ordered reunification services. However, Keough dismissed an allegation in the petition that the mother was homeless and unable to provide a stable residence, noting that this fact alone would not support an exercise of jurisdiction.
Despite some difficulty, the mother complied with all services required by her case plan, and at the 18-month review hearing in February 2007, the social worker testified that the mother’s housing situation was the only thing preventing the children from being returned to her care.
Living Arrangements Secured
By this time, the mother had secured living arrangements, but SSA’s policy was that all adults living in a home had to be fingerprinted before a dependent child could be returned for overnight visitation or a 60-day trial visit. Each time the mother moved to a new location, the agency reported, at least one resident either refused to be fingerprinted, or was shown to have a criminal history.
Nevertheless, the social worker testified that the mother “was completely willing to follow [SSA’s] requests and try to move into a place where people would be approved.”
At SSA’s request, Keough ended reunification services at the hearing and—after the children had been placed with a prospective adoptive family—held another hearing in December 2007 at which he found the children to be adoptable and terminated the mother’s parental rights.
However, on the mother’s appeal, , the panel reversed, with Justice Richard D. Fybel concluding that In re G.S.R. (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 2012 provided the relevant analysis.
There, the Court of Appeal ruled that the trial court had erred when it failed to conduct a hearing to determine a father’s fitness to regain custody of his two sons because he was impoverished, and instead terminated his parental rights. 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 that “indigency, by itself, does not make one an unfit parent.”
Fybel remarked that the instant situation differed in that the mother—unlike the father in G.S.R.—had been the offending parent, and that her acts and omissions had brought the children into the juvenile dependency system in the first place.
“But the record is clear, and SSA correctly concedes, mother has corrected all the problems that led to the juvenile court’s assertion of jurisdiction over the children,” he said.
Fybel also noted that the case differed from G.S.R. in that the father there was simply unable to find housing—whereas the mother in the instant case found a series of living accommodations that were unacceptable to SSA—and he faulted SSA with failing to help the mother find any accommodations that would be acceptable.
Commenting that the social worker did not timely obtain mother’s signature on a family unification referral that might have moved her higher on the low-income housing list, simply recommended that the mother look in the Pennysaver for housing, and was admittedly unaware of any other resources to which she could refer the mother for low-income housing, he opined that the juvenile court’s finding that SSA had provided or offered all reasonable services was not supported by substantial evidence.
Reversing the termination order, Fybel directed the juvenile court to conduct a hearing to address whether any other legally sufficient grounds existed that would make placing the children in their mother’s care detrimental, and to take the necessary steps to return the children in the absence of any such grounds.
In so doing, he recognized that there was “not a perfect ‘fix’ for the problem” given the children’s placement in a prospective adoptive home, and the court’s disinclination to upset “the rare instance of stability in their lives.”
“Nonetheless, we cannot permit mother’s parental rights to be terminated for the reasons we have explained,” he wrote.
Presiding Justice William F. Rylaarsdam and Justice Eileen C. Moore joined Fybel in his opinion.
The case is In re P.C., 08 S.O.S. 4382.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company