Mother Wins Reunification After Reversal of Earlier Ruling

In this case, filed on May 29 but certified for publication on June 17, the second Division reversed a Los Angeles County juvenile court’s denial of her section 388 petition for modification of the existing order that requested either placement of J.M. with her or further reunification services. 

Here is what it said:

Following termination of her reunification services, Mother addressed the domestic violence issues that comprised the entire basis for the sustained dependency petition regarding J.M. She also addressed various additional concerns the court and respondent Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) raised throughout the proceedings. Specifically, the court required efforts from Mother wholly unrelated to domestic violence, such as improving her living conditions, completing drug testing, and receiving mental health services. Mother complied. Thus, since termination of her reunification services, Mother not only successfully completed all programs to address domestic violence issues, but did everything else the court asked of her.

That Mother ameliorated all concerns leading to dependency court jurisdiction constitutes a substantial change in circumstances. Moreover, Mother presented evidence that, in light of this change in circumstances and the record as a whole, it was in J.M.’s best interests to be placed with her. Namely, Mother provided evidence—including testimony of a DCFS social worker—that she was ready, willing, and able to care for her son, that they had a growing bond, and that she posed no danger to him. The court’s primary reason for denying the petition was a concern that Mother had not provided sufficient evidence to address the court’s concern that she was not capable of caring for J.M.’s special needs, such as evidence reflecting she had been “trained” on how to do so. That concern, however, was unsupported by the record and was based on unwarranted speculation. The record contains no evidence suggesting Mother could not appropriately care for her son. Rather, it reflects only that J.M.’s long-term foster caregivers had more experience with doing so—and had done so without first receiving any “training.” Accordingly, the court abused its discretion in not granting Mother’s petition.

Even after the termination of reunification services, at which point a juvenile court focuses primarily on stability and permanency for the child, the court’s analysis must be more nuanced than simply comparing a parent’s home and abilities with those of a long-term caregiver and deciding which the court deems preferable. Although, at this stage, a parent’s interest in maintaining a relationship with his or her biological child is no longer the focus, the court must still consider the benefits to a child of remaining connected with his or her biological parent and extended family. Here, the benefits to J.M. of remaining connected with a biological parent who has made the kind of “reformation” for which section 388 creates an “escape mechanism” (see In re Kimberly F. (1997) 56 Cal.App.4th 519, 528 (Kimberly F.)), overcome the presumption that her son remaining in a stable and potentially permanent foster home is in his best interests. (See In re Marilyn H. (1993) 5 Cal.4th 295, 309 (Marilyn H.).) The juvenile court erred in concluding otherwise. Accordingly, we reverse the court’s May 15, 2019 order denying Mother’s section 388 petition, and instruct the court to place J.M. with Mother.

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For a complete look at the court opinion, click here.

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