Monday, December 14, 2015
Court of Appeal Rules:
Juvenile Court Lacks Jurisdiction to Probe Child’s Death
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The juvenile court may not retain jurisdiction over a dependency case after the subject child has died, for the purpose of learning the child’s cause of death and/or appointing a guardian ad litem to investigate potential tort claims for the child’s estate, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
Div. One Thursday ordered publication of its Nov. 19 opinion, in which it affirmed Imperial Superior Court Judge William D. Quan’s ruling denying motions by minor’s counsel and by the father of A.A., as the child was identified. The 22-month-old girl died in December of last year, a month after being removed from her mother’s home.
The Imperial County Department of Social Services alleged that the mother had allowed the child to play with lit matches, exposed her to heavy marijuana smoke, and left drug paraphernalia and drugs in plain sight. She had been arrested and briefly jailed, and the father had declined to take custody.
The child died at a children’s hospital after being found unresponsive in the foster home where she was staying. A doctor at the hospital said she died of a brain injury and it was “very likely inflicted trauma,” and investigations were launched by a number of agencies.
In April of this year, the DSS asked the judge to dismiss the case, saying there was no longer jurisdiction. Minor’s counsel opposed dismissal, urging the court to appoint a guardian ad litem to determine whether there was a tort claim arising as a result of the suspicious death, and he and the child’s father said the court should retain jurisdiction until it could be determined how the child died.
Quan granted the dismissal, saying:
“I don’t understand or see how we can retain or continue jurisdiction over a file or a child once the child has deceased, especially under Welfare and Institutions Code, when our goal is to protect the welfare of the child, and in the court’s opinion, that would require a living child . . . .”
The parties, he said, needed to seek relief in another forum, such as probate court.
Justice Richard Huffman, writing for the appeals court, agreed. The lack of any precedent, or of specific legislation, suggests an understanding that “the existence of a living child” is an essential aspect of juvenile court jurisdiction.
He emphasized that the basic dependency law, Welfare and Institutions Code §300, expressly states that its purpose is to protect children who are “currently” being abused or neglected or are “at risk” of abuse or neglect.
In A.A.’s case, he added, the court found jurisdiction under §300(b), which permits the court to maintain such jurisdiction “only so long as is necessary to protect the child from risk of suffering serious physical harm or illness,” a risk that no longer existed after the child died.
He rejected the argument that the court had “inherent authority” to keep the case alive. There can be no inherent authority to hear a matter over which the court lacks jurisdiction, the jurist reasoned.
Nor, he said, can a dependency court appoint a guardian ad litem for a deceased child. To do so would only benefit the child’s family or estate, he explained, whereas the dependency court’s function is to protect children. The parents, he noted, are pursuing wrongful death and survivorship claims elsewhere in the court system.
The case is Imperial County Department of Social Services v. S.S., 15 S.O.S. 5945.
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