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Foster Parents Have Right to Attend Hearings on Custody, Court Rules

Times Staff Writer

Foster parents may not be arbitrarily barred from hearings to determine the custody of the children they have cared for, a state appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The ruling overturns a decision by Orange County Superior Court Judge Betty Lou Lamoreaux. Lamoreaux had denied a foster mother’s request to speak on the fate of 1-year-old Cecilia H., an infant born addicted to heroin and afflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome, and her 2-year-old sister.

“One of the children had been in (the foster mother’s) care almost since birth,” wrote Justice Sheila Prell Sonenshine of the 4th District Court of Appeal. “As her counsel argued to the Juvenile Court, ‘She probably knows more about the children than anybody else at this stage of the game.’ The court should have had the benefit of her knowledge.”

The ruling, which is binding in the Santa Ana district of the Superior Court, which covers Orange County, “allows foster parents to participate,” said Christian R. Van Deusen, attorney for the single foster mother identified only as Christina K.

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“If they are in position to adopt, they at least have the opportunity to propose it,” Van Deusen said.

Under prior law, foster parents had a right to send a letter to a juvenile judge or commissioner before a status review hearing took place.

Sonenshine’s ruling means that a foster parent may physically attend the hearing and testify, Van Deusen said.

“It makes a big difference,” Van Deusen said. “As foster parents, once they obtain standing, they have access to social services agency reports. They have a right to advance notice of any recommendations to change custody.”

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Before the ruling, Van Deusen said, when biological parents wanted to resume custody, foster parents received no notice and had no access to court files. “They would have no way to participate,” Van Deusen said. “They are hamstrung.

“They wouldn’t know about it. They wouldn’t be able to intervene to try to stop it. Foster parents now have a right to appear and contest.”

The appellate court rejected arguments that Christina K. had not had custody of the children long enough to establish a right to be heard at a hearing last March.

“It is the information and interest they have to contribute to the proceedings which allows them standing,” the court ruled.

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Wanda S. Florence, the deputy county counsel who represented the county Social Services Agency in the case, said the court granted standing to Christina K. one month after the appeal was filed. She declined further comment. Efforts to contact Social Services Agency officials for comment were unsuccessful.

Van Deusen said his client will try to adopt both children. He said the biological parents have a history of mental problems and drug and alcohol abuse.

“Foster parents do become attached to their children,” Van Deusen, who has been a foster parent himself, said. “As hard as foster parents try to keep in mind the fact that these are short-term relationships, it’s very hard not to become involved.”


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