By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district has reversed an order stripping a homeless man of his parental rights, holding that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Debra R. Archuleta abused her discretion in failing to continue the hearing on the matter in light of the father having been effectively precluded from testifying remotely by virtue of a bad phone connection.
Acting Presiding Justice Elizabeth A. Grimes of Div. Eight wrote the unpublished opinion, filed late Wednesday.
Grimes also authored an unpublished opinion that was filed earlier that day faulting Archuleta for not allowing a prospective adoptive parent to testify, telephonically, at a hearing to determine if a child in the care of her husband and her should be removed from their home. In that case, a writ was issued ordering a new change-of-placement hearing, with testimony permitted.
(A report on that case, A.R. v. Superior Court, B308017, appeared in yesterday’s issue of the METNEWS.)
In the case involving severance of parental rights, Archuleta said at the hearing, at which remote technology was utilized in light of the pandemic, that she could not make out what the father was saying and would therefore rely solely on argument from counsel. She found that a family bond did not exist between the father and his two sons of such a nature as to preclude a determination that the boys were adoptable.
Explaining the reversal, Grimes said:
“[T]he juvenile court abused its discretion by not continuing the hearing so that father could provide clear, intelligible testimony in support of his claimed exception to the termination of parental rights. We cannot find that the error was harmless under any standard of review.”
She went on to say:
“Here, we do not know what testimony father tried to give, except that he was attempting to testify about the bond between him and his children, and the quality of his visitation. The Department’s reports provided little information about the quality of father’s visitation with the children. There was evidence maternal grandparents were frustrating father’s ability to visit the children. Father had been the custodial parent for these children for over 18 months before they were detained. On this record, we cannot know whether father may have had a better outcome had he been permitted to testify.”
The case is In re L.D., B309852.
Although four orders by Archuleta, sitting in Dependency Court, have been affirmed, with a writ petition denied in another case, and orders in one case being affirmed in part and reversed in part, there have been two other cases where the Court of Appeal for this district faulted the judge for not hearing from the parents. None of the 10 opinions examining the judge’s rulings in dependency cases was certified for publication.
•In H.M. v. Superior Court, decided by Div. Three on April 9, a peremptory writ of mandate was issued directing the Superior Court to hold a contested hearing on the suitability of parents to have the return of their son.
On Nov. 10 of last year, after such a hearing, Archuleta ordered the return of the boy—but stayed that order, at the request of the Department of Children and Family Services (“DCFS”), pending a further proceeding on Nov. 19.
However, on the night of Nov. 10, a DCFS social worker purportedly spotted the parents together, in violation of a stay-away order Archuleta had just issued. The alleged violation was set forth in a Nov. 12 report; that day, the DCFS filed a “Request for Walk-On”; Archuleta held a hearing on Nov. 16; the parents and their counsel were present.
Archuleta declined to hear testimony or to set the matter for an evidentiary hearing. The mother’s attorney, Christine Hernandez, protested, to no avail:
“[I]t’s our position that the court won’t be able to make a finding as to credibility without allowing mother to testify and allowing mother to cross-examine the social worker.”
Archuleta responded that she had already heard testimony from the parents on Nov. 10 and, crediting the social worker’s written account, declared: “I am changing my order.”
In an opinion granting the parents’ respective writ petitions, Justice Luis Lavin, seeing a due process violation, said that Archuleta “should have scheduled a contested hearing to allow the parents the opportunity to address the new evidence submitted by the Department.”
•On May 10, in In re R.K., Div. Three reversed Archuleta’s Aug. 18, 2020 order summarily denying a mother’s petition seeking the return of her son, R.K., to her custody or, alternatively, reinstating family reunification services. The judge had checked a box on a form indicating that a determination adverse to the mother’s contentions had already been made and nothing new was shown.
Disagreeing, Justice Anne H. Egerton said Archuleta abused her discretion because new circumstances—the mother’s attainment of sobriety—had been put forth, saying that “mother’s petition established a prima facie case that setting aside the court’s order terminating reunification services might be in R.K.’s best interests, requiring the court to hold an evidentiary hearing.”
Archuleta was assigned to Dependency Court in March of last year and proceeded to receive training in dependency law. Her previous assignment—before going on extended sick leave, and threatening to sue the court for not accommodating a disability she claims—was to an infraction court at the Michael J. Antonovich Antelope Valley Courthouse.
She won election to her post in 2016. Archuleta drew controversy in that race by using the ballot designation of “Violent Crimes Prosecutor” although she was at the time in the White Collar Crimes Unit, beating off a challenge to the designation in the primary on the basis of having held onto a single violent-crimes case from a previous assignment.
Archuleta’s ballot designation was repeatedly cited the following year by state Sen. Ben Allen, D-Los Angeles, in successfully carrying a bill, SB 235, that reformed ballot designation requirements in judicial elections.
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