Limits on Juvenile ‘Ward of the Court’ Status Change

(via Michigan Dept. Ed.)

A minor foster child cannot be reclassified as a “ward of the court” without a juvenile judge first reviewing professional recommendations for his changed status, a state appeal court ruled.

In overturning the juvenile court’s decision, Fourth District Court of Appeals Justice Richard D. Huffman found the juvenile judge failed to follow state law.  The statute  mandates that a judge base any status change on recommendations from a joint report by a probation officer and a social worker.  That was not done in this case, nor was the appropriate report prepared, according to Huffman.

In California, the juvenile court protects a neglected or abused child as a “dependent child of the court” and may remove them from the troubled home for placement in temporary foster care.

If a child becomes a truant or habitually disobedient the juvenile judge may change their status to a “ward of the court.”  As a ward of the court, any criminal conduct may subject the minor to detention in a juvenile camp or juvenile hall, making the status change a critical question.

In this case, the minor, identified only as Joey G., took a $600 phone from his foster home.  He was charged with grand theft of personal property and receipt of stolen property.  After Joey admitted taking the phone, the theft charge was reduced to a misdemeanor and the stolen property count dismissed.

Judge Christine V. Pate, a retired San Diego judge assigned by the chief justice, declared Joey a ward of Imperial County.  Joey appealed, arguing that before changing his status Pate failed to consider a joint report on what status would best serve his interests.

“There is no evidence the probation officer and the social worker agreed on the appropriate status for Joey nor does the record contain any evidence that such an agreement existed between the two agencies,” Huffman wrote.  The actions of the juvenile judge failed to follow the “clear instructions” of the Legislature, Huffman concluded.

The statute requires the report address 12 criteria, including the history of abuse against the child, the parents’ cooperation with the child’s school and a statement by counsel representing the minor, or any volunteer appointed for the child.  Although the report recommended Joey be declared a ward of the court, it did not spell out how each of them reached that conclusion.  At one point, the social worker described Joey as “a good kid who has the potential to do well and be successful.”

“Simply put, the report falls far short of the requirements [of the law],” Huffman wrote.

The Attorney General conceded that Joey should benefit from a change in the law, which increased the threshold dollar amount for grand theft and lessened the punishment.  Huffman agreed, and sent the case back down on that issue.

Justice Huffman was joined by Justices James A. McIntyre and Terry B. O’Rourke.

Case:  In re Joey G., No. D059598



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