Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Page 1


Parents Cannot Be Jailed Over Reunification Plan Violations—S.C.

High Court Overturns Mother’s Jail Term for Refusing Drug Treatment


By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer


Juvenile courts may order a parent to participate in substance abuse treatment as part of a reunification case plan, but cannot use contempt sanctions to incarcerate a parent who fails to satisfy the condition, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

Reasoning that state law provides for such parents to be penalized through loss of custody and parental rights, the justices voted 6-1 to strike down a San Diego Superior Court rule authorizing fines or jail time for parents who fail to comply with a reunification case plan.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Harry Mark Elias sentenced a woman, identified as Kayla W., to 300 days in custody for failing to enter drug treatment under a case plan developed after the woman and her son tested positive for amphetamines shortly after the child’s birth.

Substance Abuse Treatment

Elias did so under the superior court’s Substance Abuse Recovery Management System, an aggressive treatment plan developed as part of an effort to address the problem of parental drug abuse in juvenile dependency cases.

Under the system, a parent believed to have “alcohol and/or drug issues” is assessed and, if necessary, ordered to participate in treatment as part of a family reunification case plan. Compliance is enforced not only with the “carrot” of reunification, Justice Carol A. Corrigan explained in her opinion for the high court, but also with the “stick “of compulsory jail time, and an offending parent may be cited for contempt and incarcerated for up to five days for every incident of noncompliance.

On appeal, Div. One of the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled that the lengthy jail sentence was an abuse of discretion, but declined to resolve whether a court may, under some circumstances, enforce its reunification orders through contempt proceedings and incarceration.

Review Granted

The Supreme Court granted review to determine whether Elias could require the mother to participate in a substance abuse program as part of reunification, and whether Welfare and Institutions Code Sec. 213 authorized the court to hold her in contempt and incarcerate her for failing to comply.

The statute provides that “[a]ny willful disobedience or interference with any lawful order of the juvenile court or of a judge or referee thereof constitutes a contempt of court.”

Citing the parties’ agreement, Corrigan wrote that a juvenile court does have the power to order a parent to participate in substance abuse treatment as part of a reunification plan.

However, she concluded, contempt sanctions could not be used as punishment solely because a parent failed to satisfy a reunification condition, despite courts’ “broad statutory authority and inherent power” to enforce orders through contempt sanctions.

Juvenile Court Intervention

The juvenile court’s intervention to protect a child from abuse or neglect is regulated by an explicit statutory scheme, and a court is authorized to remove a child from parental custody and ultimately to terminate parental rights if the court determines a child is at risk, the jurist noted.

A parent seeking to regain custody must demonstrate—generally through compliance with a reunification plan—that parental custody is in the child’s best interest.

But Corrigan pointed out that reunification services are voluntary, and that an unwilling parent may not be compelled to participate.

Instead, she noted, state law provides that failure to participate is evidence that a return to parental custody would be detrimental to the child, and these findings will ultimately lead to a permanent loss of custody and parental rights if the problem is left uncorrected.

The justice also rejected the San Diego County Health & Human Services Agency’s suggestion that the availability of brief periods of incarceration for contempt would be beneficial before a court imposes the ultimate sanction of parental rights termination, commenting that “there is no indication that the Legislature intended parents to be punished in this manner.”

Corrigan also remarked that allowing juvenile courts to incarcerate parents for failing to comply with reunification orders was “problematic” given the lack of statutory principles to guide or constrain the court.

Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justices Carlos R. Moreno, Joyce L. Kennard, Kathryn Mickle Werdegar and Ming W. Chin joined Corrigan in her opinion.

Justice Marvin R. Baxter wrote separately to concur that Elias’ 300-day sentence was an abuse of discretion, but vocalized his “doubt” that the Legislature intended the termination of reunification services and parental rights, and permanent removal from parental custody, “to be the first, last, and sole resort of the juvenile courts with respect to parents who willfully fail to participate in court-ordered programs.”

He explained:

“Once the parent voluntarily decides to accept reunification services, and thereby to submit to the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, he or she has, as a necessary consequence, agreed to submit to all lawful orders of the court….

“If the parent decides either at the start or in the midst of the process that he or she does not wish to participate, the statutory procedures for opting out of reunification may be invoked at that time. What the parent is not free to do is remain in the system while making a mockery of the court’s authority and disobeying its orders without any threat of contempt.”

The case is In re Nolan W., 09 S.O.S. 1888.


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