Wading into a sensitive area of child welfare, a California appeals court panel has ruled that county officials can remove a dangerously incorrigible child from the home even if the parent has responded appropriately to the behavior problems.
The case involved a 17-year-old girl who repeatedly ran away from her mother and gave birth to two children, prompting the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services to remove her from her mother's custody.
In a decision released Thursday, a three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal unanimously said that "when a child ... faces a substantial risk of serious physical harm, a parent's inability to supervise or protect a child is enough by itself to invoke the juvenile court's dependency jurisdiction."
The ruling could prove to be an important moment in the decades-long debate in child welfare circles about when government agencies should remove troubled children from their parents and whether officials should be doing more to keep families united.
Armand Montiel, a DCFS spokesman, said "the court agreed that child safety is Job One. When a child is in danger and the parent is unable to protect the child, we need to step in."
But Sanford Jossen, an El Segundo attorney who frequently represents children and parents involved in the child welfare system, described the ruling as "very disturbing."
"It significantly expands the department's ability to interfere with the parent-child relationship," Jossen said. "There are many parents in this state who do everything possible but are not able to control their children."
Child welfare experts said the case appears to be headed for the California Supreme Court because it conflicted with another state appellate court that ruled in 2010 that a parent had to be abusive or neglectful for the child to be removed from the home.
The case ruled on this week concerned a girl who began running away from home for days at a time when she was 14 years old. During that time, she did not attend school and falsely reported that her mother was abusive. On one occasion while on the streets, the girl came into circumstances that required a hospital visit, the court said. In another instance, she threw furniture during a tantrum.
Each time she ran away, her mother, identified only as Lisa E., searched for her. Her mother also asked for help from DCFS, police and the girl's grandparents because the grandfather had professional experience working with troubled children.
"Notwithstanding these efforts, [the girl] remained 'rebellious,' 'incorrigible' and 'out of control,'" the court said.
At 15, the girl gave birth to the first of two children. When she turned 17, DCFS successfully petitioned the court to remove the girl from her mother's custody and placed her with her grandparents, where she lived until reaching adulthood.
The "mother in this case was neither neglectful nor blameworthy in being unable to supervise or protect her daughter," the appeals court said.
Lara Holtzman, who is managing attorney for the Alliance for Children's Rights and has spent many years working in Los Angeles' child welfare system, agreed that the appeals court decision could be used by county lawyers to remove children who would have previously been left with their parents.
"A decision like this could give DCFS more leeway to feel that they don't need certain facts in place before removing a child," she said. "But it doesn't mean that they have to open the floodgates. They may say we only want to call this into play when everything else has been tried."
Holtzman said that the case also highlighted the difficulty parents have obtaining services to help prevent their children from coming under court jurisdiction.
In recent years, state and federal officials have attempted to relax rules to give Los Angeles County's child welfare system more freedom to spend money on parenting classes, substance abuse treatment and other services for families not yet in the foster care system.
But funding for child welfare services across the nation is generally triggered only when a child enters court jurisdiction, and agencies have struggled to find effective means to help families before the court removes children from parents' custody.
"The county has not excelled at helping parents hold on to their children," Holtzman said. "Parents shouldn't have to lose custody to get services and help."
And more and more families are seeking services.
Los Angeles County supervisors have recently identified DCFS as the leading agency to intervene with children who are involved in sex trafficking. Holtzman noted that many parents of those children have gone to great lengths to help them and are likely to be more effective than a foster parent might be.
"You can have a parent who has done everything and is at wit's end," she said. "Isn't there something that needs to be created that allows parents like that to maintain authority while the government helps the child?"