CA Supreme Court: Parents Can Lose Custody of Children Even If There is No Fault
What does it take to lose custody of your child to the state? Usually it is very difficult, as most states don’t want the burden of having to raise a child. However, that hasn’t stopped the California Supreme Court from removing a major factor in the transfer of parental custody to the juvenile courts. The astounding point about that case though is that was unnecessary to do so.
When R.T. was 14, she began running away from home and ditching school. She gave birth to a daughter next year and then had another child the next year. Both of R.T.’s children are wards of the state. R.T.’s mother has tried to supervise and protect R.T. with Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), but to no avail. R.T. had accused her mother of abusing her, though the accusations were considered false. Mother later arranged for R.T. to leave with her maternal grandfather. This was difficult for both parties as R.T. allegedly threw a chair at him.
In February 2014, DCFS asked the juvenile court to declare then 17 year old R.T. a dependent of the court. DCFS argued that there was a “substantial risk of serious physical harm or illness, as a result of the failure or inability of mother to adequately supervise or protecther.” The juvenile court agreed, because “the mother cannot control R.T. so she has given her off to grandparents and they can‘t control her either.” The mother appealed, but the ruling was sustained by both the appeals court and the state Supreme Court.
Easily the most controversial issue of this case is that the California Supreme Court removed causation from the child dependency statute. In English, California has a series of laws that allows courts to remove custody from parents and give it to the state. One of those laws, section 300(b)(1),allows the state to assume custody of a child if there is “a risk or substantial risk that the child will suffer, serious physical harm or illness, as a result of the failure or inability of his or her parent or guardian to adequately supervise or protect the child.” The second half of that law, “as a result of failure or inability of his or her parent,” is normally a conditional clause.
That is, if a parent fails to supervise or protect the child and if there would be a substantial risk of harm to the child, then the state may assume custody of the child. It is important to understand the law this way because there are two events that must happen before the state can take a child away. First, the parent must fail to supervise or protect the child. Second, there must be substantial risk of harm to the child.
Linguistics Is the Cause of Mental Gymnastics
This case is largely about whether the two factors must be connected. Must the parent’s failure to supervise cause substantial risk to the child or could they each arise independently? All evidence in the lower courts indicates that the mother did her best to supervise R.T. If anything, it was R.T.’s own behavior that lead to her being a teenage single mother of two. “The record also supports a theory suggesting that R.T.‘s disobedience was the reason mother was unable to protect or supervise R.T.” Indeed, the Court goes so far as to say that “we in no way pass judgment on mother‘s inability to control R.T.‘s incorrigible behavior.” If the law was read so that parental failure causes risk to the child, then the mother should win this case.
Instead, the state Supreme Court concluded that the legislature never intended causation as a factor when it wrote the law. The Court dove through the legislative history and compared the child dependency law to a similar law dealing with sex trafficking (section 300 (b) (2)). The problem with this analysis is that runaway children and sexual slavery are two different and distinct problems. There might be some overlap, but a teenager who refuses to live with her family is a different problem than a child who is kidnapped and sold. Just because causation is missing from the custody law dealing with sex trafficking does not mean that the legislature intended to remove causation from both.
We Know the Problem, So What’s the Solution?
The problem with reading legislative intent is that if the legislature actually intended the law to mean something, they would have simply written that into the law. In this case, the Court’s ruling directly contradicts the written law itself! The phrase “as a result” means that the first event is caused by the second event. If I say “I broke my leg as a result of falling down stairs”, I mean that my leg broke because of the fall. It makes no sense to assume that “as a result” means that “I broke my leg and fell down stairs, but the stairs had nothing to do with my leg.”
Freed from the burden of having to show that parental responsibility is a cause of harm to children, state services are now free to remove child custody if a parent is failing to “adequately” parent a child and if the child is perceived to be in danger. Although this case will not have much effect on a woman who was 17 and a half when the case was initially brought, it will matter to future parents. A father who is wheelchair bound whose toddler plays in a building with secondhand smoke from other tenants could potentially lose custody. Or a single mother who works two jobs late at night is often absent from home while her son experiments with drugs. Although the California Supreme Court probably didn’t intend for these possible cases, they will surely arise in the future.