Father’s Parental Rights Restored After Loss Due to “Poverty”

In this case, the Fourth District reversed a Riverside County juvenile court judge’s order terminating a father’s parental rights.

“This appeal poses the question whether a juvenile court may, consistent with due process and the dependency statutes, terminate the parental rights of a noncustodial father who seeks custody even though the state detained and removed the child based only on allegations against mother and the court found giving father custody would be detrimental based on problems arising from his poverty.”

“…Father argues the entire procedure violated his due process rights and there wasn’t adequate support for the trial court’s finding that giving him custody would be detrimental to the child. We hold a juvenile court may not terminate parental rights based on problems arising from the parent’s poverty, a problem made worse, from a due process standpoint, when the department didn’t formally allege those problems as a basis for removal. Absent those impermissible grounds for removal there wasn’t clear and convincing evidence that returning the child to father would be detrimental to her. We therefore reverse the termination of father’s rights and remand for further proceedings.”

“…The real problem with the trial court’s detriment finding is it was based on father’s poverty, which is barred by statute and our case law. The dependency statute directs ‘[a] child shall not be found to be a person [subject to dependency proceedings] solely due to the lack of an emergency shelter for the family.’ (§ 300, subd. (b).) It follows that ‘poverty alone, even abject poverty resulting in homelessness, is not a valid basis for assertion of juvenile court jurisdiction…Put differently, indigency, by itself, does not make one an unfit parent and ‘judges [and] social workers…have an obligation to guard against the influence of class and life style biases.’’ (In re G.S.R. (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1202, 1212 (G.S.R.).)”

“We recognize this rule because the overriding interest of the dependency laws is to maintain and support the family unit. (Hansen v. Department of Social Services (1987) 193 Cal.App.3d 283, 293–294 [‘a regulation that requires the removal of a child from his or her family in order to interpose social services with the ostensible purpose of providing shelter for such child, contradicts and subverts the primary purpose of our child welfare laws’].) Thus, where family bonds are strained by the incidents of poverty, the department must take steps to assist the family, not simply remove the child and leave the parent on their own to resolve their condition and recover their children. That approach is consistent with ‘the purpose of the Juvenile Court Act that the bond between a minor and [their] family be ‘preserved and strengthened’ (§ 202) through the provision of appropriate services. [Citation.] ‘The legislative scheme contemplates immediate and intensive support services to reunify a family where a dependency disposition removes a child from parental custody.’’ (Hansen, at pp. 292–293, quoting In re John B. (1984) 159 Cal.App.3d 268, 274.)”

“To that end, California courts have repeatedly found social services must actively seek to assist a parent suffering from poverty in obtaining adequate housing and that trial courts may not terminate reunification services or parental rights if they have failed to do so.”

“…We recognize there’s no completely satisfactory remedy for this situation. The department’s failure to engage with father’s core problem—his poverty—and its focus on peripheral issues have deprived him and his daughter of years during which they could have established a loving relationship. As a result, Serenity has been placed in a prospective adoptive home that is presumably loving and at least stable. We wish there were a way of addressing the problem that would not create even more turmoil and uncertainty than she already has experienced. Obviously, it would have been better for Serenity and father had the trial court and the department been more diligent from the outset. It’s unfortunate that we have to reset the clock now, but we can’t permit termination of father’s parental rights on the basis of his economic status when the department failed to provide adequate assistance.”

Read the full opinion of the court.

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