Family Court Authority Bolstered

When a mentally ill mother is found unfit to care for her two children, and their father is capable of caring for them, the custody case belongs not in juvenile court but in family court, said a California appeals court last week.

This ruling is significant for family law and juvenile attorneys because, while there is crossover between these two court systems as families’ circumstances change, Caroline’s case reminds both bars that one fit parent suffices to leave a case or bring one in family law court. A child does not have to be put up for dependency review just because one parent may be unfit.

Second District Court of Appeal Justice Robert M. Mallano sent a case back to family court, after the juvenile court found that the mother, identified only as “Caroline G.,” was a substantial risk to her two- and three-year-old children and could not care for them, due to her schizophrenia that caused her delusional thinking and auditory hallucinations. The juvenile court had declared the children dependents, and had them removed from their mom.

In September 2012, after Caroline danced in the streets, acted “bizarrely,” and professed to be Jesus, she was hospitalized for two weeks. Upon her release, she failed to see her psychiatrist and take her psychotropic medication, blaming her conduct on insomnia.

In overturning the juvenile court ruling, Justice Mallano pointed to a 1996 decision, in which a California juvenile case featuring molestation allegations had dragged on for a year before the appellate court moved the case to family court, determining that the abuse claims were unfounded.

In a warning to future dependency attorneys, the justice wrote in the 1996 case, “The juvenile courts must not become a battleground by which family law war is waged by other means. It is common knowledge that the resources of local government social service agencies are stretched thin; in the juvenile dependency context those resources are manifestly intended to be directed at neglected and genuinely abused children.”

Caroline argued prior case law unsuccessfully, claiming that any causal relationship between her mental state and harm to her children was speculative. And she relied on a 2005 case, where an appeals court held that a social services agency had failed to show imminent harm to the children from the parents’ mental illnesses.

The appeals judge in Caroline’s case said that social services in her case had shown such imminent harm, but from only one parent. The father in Caroline’s case could care for their children, and had done an exemplary job of it.

The appeals court overturned the juvenile court’s jurisdiction orders and directed the case to be sent to the family court for custody and visitation.

Justice Mallano was joined by Justices Victoria Gerrard Chaney and Jeffrey W. Johnson.

Case: Los Angeles v. Caroline G., No. B248092


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