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California court redefines when parents can lose custody

A recent California appellate court ruling has some family law and children's rights attorneys concerned about the level of government intervention it could bring to families trying to deal with difficult children. The case involves a teen who ran away from home multiple times, skipped school, had at least one violent tantrum, falsely reported that her mother was abusive, landed in the hospital and eventually had two children.

When the girl was 17, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services removed her from the home where she lived with her mother even though her mother was not found to be negligent or abusive. She was placed with her grandparents until she reached adulthood. The grandfather reportedly had professional experience with troubled youngsters. The girl's mother had sought his help as well as that of DCFS previously in dealing with the girl.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal sided with DCFS in a unanimous decision, stated. It wrote that "when a child ... faces a substantial risk of serious physical harm, a parent's inability to supervise or protect a child is enough by itself to invoke the juvenile court's dependency jurisdiction." It also noted that the girl's mother "was neither neglectful nor blameworthy in being unable to supervise or protect her daughter."

A spokesperson for DCFS says that "child safety is Job One. When a child is in danger and the parent is unable to protect the child, we need to step in." However, some California attorneys expressed concern that the ruling gives DCFS too much freedom to interfere with the relationship between children and parents and can be used to tear families apart instead of working to keep them together.

An attorney for the group Alliance for Children's Rights says that parents should feel free to seek help with their troubled children from DCFS without fearing that they will lose them. She says, "Parents shouldn't have to lose custody to get services and help."

The case could be headed to the state supreme court. In the meantime, the ruling doesn't necessarily mean that a slew of troubled children will be taken away from parents who are doing their best. However, it is an option if child welfare officials believe that's the only way to keep a child safe. People in danger of losing custody of a child for this reason can and should seek legal assistance.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Appeals court gives counties more power to remove kids from homes," Garrett Therolf, April. 02, 2015

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