Court of Appeal:
Judge’s Failure to Look at File Requires Custody Reversal
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district on Friday reversed an award of sole physical custody to the mother of two boys because the bench officer, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Debra R. Archuleta, had not presided over the case previously and did not look at the file. She merely adopted the recommendation of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (“DCFS”).
“Father contends the trial court erred by entering custodial and visitation exit orders without reviewing the case file or possessing any knowledge of the case,” Justice Luis Lavin of Div. Three wrote in an unpublished opinion. “We agree.”
Lavin did not address the father’s contention that there had been a due process violation, saying it was unnecessary to do so in light of the determination that the judge abused her discretion.
The boys—one born in 2014 and the other in 2012—had been living with the father. The DCFS filed a dependency petition based on reports of physical abuse of the youths by the father’s live-in girlfriend.
At a Dec. 12, 2019 detention hearing, Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered the boys detained and released them to their mother. On Feb. 18, 2020, at a jurisdiction/disposition hearing, a judge sustained the allegations of the petition, ruling that they were to remain with the mother.
The DCFS recommended in a report that dependency jurisdiction be terminated, with mother having sole physical custody, but with the parents sharing legal custody, and that the father be granted monitored visitation.
Archuleta presided over a hearing last Feb. 10. She announced she would follow the DCFS’s advice.
File Not Read
The judge said:
“Due to technical difficulties, I have not been able to review the case file or the status review report that was prepared for today’s date.”
However, she continued, “I believe it has been agreed upon by and between the parties that this matter is going to settle” along the lines the department had recommended. There had, in fact, been no agreement, and the father voiced his objection.
In his opinion reversing the order and remanding the matter, Lavin said.
“Rather than pausing to educate herself about the matter before her, however, the court instead replied, ‘your objection is noted for the record,’ then ordered jurisdiction to be terminated upon receipt of a juvenile custody order, which mother’s attorney was to prepare. A week later, the court entered exit orders on the stated terms. There is no evidence in the record before us that the court reviewed the case file between the hearing and the entry of the exit orders.”
Judge Not Informed
He went on to say:
“The court here, by failing to review the case file or otherwise learn about the matter over which it was presiding for the first time, issued uninformed orders that could fail to serve the best interests of the children….
“Regardless of what a properly-informed court might have done, the court in this case, by failing to exercise informed discretion, abused its discretion.”
A new hearing was ordered.
The case is In re Ryan M, B311047.
Archuleta, who is up for reelection last year, was assigned to Dependency Court last year after threatening to sue the court over her assignment to an infraction court at the Michael J. Antonovich Antelope Valley Courthouse. She has incurred other reversals in dependency matters based on due process violations.
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