Justia Family Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in California Courts of Appeal
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T.T. (Mother) challenged a juvenile court’s finding that the federal Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) did not apply to the dependency proceedings concerning her son, Dominick D. She argued the juvenile court failed to ensure that San Bernardino County Children and Family Services (CFS) discharged its duty of initial inquiry into Dominick’s possible Indian ancestry under California Welfare & Institutions Code section 224.2(b). To this, the Court of Appeal agreed, but declined to address the parties’ arguments concerning harmlessness, because ICWA inquiry and notice errors did not warrant reversal of the juvenile court’s jurisdictional or dispositional findings and orders other than the finding that ICWA did not apply. The Court accordingly vacated that finding and remanded for compliance with ICWA and related California law, but otherwise affirmed. View "In re Dominick D." on Justia Law

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The boys were removed from the custody of their (married) parents by the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services in 2020, after a string of child abuse and neglect referrals stemming from repeated bouts of domestic violence between the couple, concerns over parental substance abuse and, in mother’s case, mental health concerns. The boys, then 19 months and 6 months old, were placed into foster care together, later joined by a sister who was detained in a separate case after mother tested positive for drugs at her birth. The juvenile court sustained allegations that the boys were at substantial risk of serious physical and emotional harm.Mother appealed a subsequent termination of her parental rights, arguing that the juvenile court erred in its consideration of the beneficial relationship exception (Welf. & Inst. Code 366.26(c)(1)(B)(i)), under “Caden C.,” a 2021 decision. The court of appeal affirmed the orders terminating parental rights, without reaching the merits. The record does not contain evidence that would support the application of the beneficial relationship exception. When a juvenile court applies the wrong legal standard in rejecting the beneficial relationship exception, reversal is not warranted if the parent did not introduce evidence that would permit a finding in their favor under the correct legal standard. View "In re J.R." on Justia Law

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The juvenile court bypassed family reunification services for appellant S.Z. (Mother) pursuant to Welfare and Institutions Code section 361.5 (b)(5) and (c)(3). Mother contended the court’s ruling was not supported by substantial evidence. The Court of Appeal concluded Mother’s argument lacked merit, but published its opinion in this case to clarify the relationship between subdivisions (b)(5) and (c)(3) of section 361.5 and the resulting burden on an appellant challenging the bypass of reunification services under those provisions. Because Mother did not make a showing under subsection (c)(3), and could not do so on this record, the Court affirmed. View "In re Raul V." on Justia Law

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In May 2021 the Agency received a report of general neglect of an infant. A social worker met with Mother and her partner, Anthony; both reported that there was no known Native American ancestry. The dependency petition stated that a social worker had completed an Indian Child Welfare Act (25 U.S.C. 1901, ICWA) inquiry. At a hearing, Mother’s counsel reported no known heritage. Based on Anthony’s response, the court ordered further inquiry (Welf. & Inst. Code 224.2(e)). A social worker received a voicemail from Anthony, who apparently accidentally left his phone on, and discussed with Mother a plan to claim that the minor had Indian ancestry to delay the child's removal. In August, Mother stated she was not sure whether she had Native American ancestry. A maternal great-grandmother reported that the minor’s great-great-great-great grandparents “told her she has Blackfoot Cherokee,” but she had no documentation regarding the possible affiliation.The Agency recommended that the juvenile court find that there was “no reason to believe or reason to know” that the minor was an Indian child. The minor was placed with a maternal relative. At a September 2021 disposition hearing, the court found, without prejudice to future research, that ICWA did not apply. The court of appeal affirmed. Although the Agency erred by not interviewing additional family members, reversal of the early dependency order was not warranted simply because the Agency’s ongoing obligations had not yet been satisfied. View "In re S.H." on Justia Law

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Defendant Jerry Vang was convicted by jury for multiple crimes against two different victims, including: kidnapping first degree felony murder with a special circumstance, infliction of corporal injury on a cohabitant, making criminal threats with firearm allegations, and firearms possession by a felon. Defendant had a long history of domestic violence, had an argument with his wife. After she fled in her car, defendant followed, eventually forced her to stop, and coerced her (through force or fear) into his vehicle. As defendant was driving away, his wife opened the door and jumped from the moving vehicle, resulting in her death. Defendant argued the trial court erred by permitting the prosecution to proceed on a legally inadequate theory of felony murder. He contends that under the current felony-murder rule, as amended by Senate Bill No. 1437 (2017-2018 Reg. Sess.), he could be liable for felony murder only if he was proven to be the “actual killer.” Because the evidence showed that his wife jumped from the vehicle of her own volition, defendant contends he was not the actual killer and therefore his conviction for first degree felony murder with a special circumstance rested on a legally invalid theory. To this, the Court of Appeal agreed, and reversed that conviction as to first degree felony murder. The judgment and convictions were affirmed in all other respects. View "California v. Vang" on Justia Law

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Defendant, a mother of ten children, was accused of physically abusing several of her children. In November 2017, the court sustained allegations of a petition and ordered the children removed from the parents. Throughout the proceedings, DCFS was given contact information for and/or had contact with a variety of extended family members. However, there was no indication in the record that an ICWA inquiry was made of any of these extended family members.Defendant claims that CFS failed to make an adequate ICWA inquiry because it did not of certain family members. Thus, Defendant asked the court to send the case back to the juvenile court. DCFS countered that Defendant denied any Indian ancestry, which is sufficient to end the inquiry.The Second Appellate District found that there was no evidence conflicting with Defendant's statement that her children were not of Indian ancestry. Additionally, the court concluded that the juvenile court did not abuse its discretion by finding that DCFS made a proper and adequate inquiry and acted with due diligence. And finally, even if the juvenile court erred by finding DCFS’s inquiry adequate, that error was not prejudicial. View "In re Ezequiel G." on Justia Law

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Petitioner-mother J.J. petitioned for extraordinary relief pursuant to California Rules of Court, rule 8.452, seeking review of an order denying family reunification services and setting a permanency planning hearing under Welfare and Institutions Code section 366.26. She argued the juvenile court improperly bypassed reunification services, and that real party in interest the San Joaquin County Human Services Agency (the Agency) failed to comply with the federal Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. The Agency disputed both contentions. Because the order denying reunification services was not supported by sufficient evidence, the Court of Appeal granted the petition as to mother’s first contention. Because the ICWA issue was premature, the Court rejected mother’s second contention. View "J.J. v. Super. Ct." on Justia Law

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Appellant appealed the juvenile court’s order terminating her parental rights to her daughter. She did not challenge the basis of the termination of her rights. Her sole contention is that the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) did not comply with its initial duty of inquiry under Welfare and Institutions Code section 224.2, subdivision (b).1 Specifically, Appellant acknowledged she denied Indian heritage, but she contends DCFS failed to ask maternal extended family members whether J.W. is an “Indian child” within the meaning of Section 1903 of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).   The Second Appellate District affirmed the trial court’s order. The court found the juvenile court erred in determining that ICWA did not apply without evidence that DCFS questioned extended family members despite having contact with those same family members. However, the court concluded that the error was harmless because the daughter was placed for adoption with her maternal grandmother. As a second ground, the court found no prejudice because there was nothing in the record to suggest that the daughter had Indian heritage or that the mother’s denial of Indian heritage was uninformed or incorrect. View "In re J.W." on Justia Law

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S.A. (mother) appealed a juvenile court’s order terminating parental rights and ordering G.A. (minor) be placed for adoption. Mother contended the San Joaquin County Human Services Agency (Agency) and the juvenile court failed to comply with the inquiry requirements of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) because the Agency did not contact extended family members to inquire about the ICWA and the juvenile court made no findings regarding agency compliance in that regard. Mother added that no express ICWA findings were made by the juvenile court during the course of the proceedings, compounding the error, and asked the Court of Appeal to remand the case for ICWA compliance. The Court of Appeal determined that while the juvenile court failed to make an ICWA finding, the error was harmless because the Agency satisfied its duty of inquiry, and there was no reason to believe the minor was an Indian child: "the parents consistently stated they had no reason to believe they had Native American ancestry and did not object to the Agency’s reports that consistently concluded they did not. No further duty to inquire was triggered in this case, as the court and Agency had no reason to believe that an Indian child was involved." From this the Court found no prejudice flowing from the Agency's failure to interview extended family members. The case was remanded for the juvenile court to formally enter its ICWA finding on the record. View "In re G.A." on Justia Law

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A child was declared a dependent child of the juvenile court and removed from Defendants (her parents), after the court sustained an amended petition pursuant to Welfare and Institutions Code section 300, subdivisions (a) (serious physical harm), (b)(1) (failure to protect) and (j) (abuse of sibling), due to the mother’s history of violent behavior and the parent's history of substance abuse. On appeal, the mother contended the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (“Department”) violated the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA), by failing to make an adequate “further inquiry” after she advised the Department and the court, she and the child may have Cherokee ancestry through the maternal grandfather.   The Second Appellate district conditionally affirmed the disposition order. The court wrote that the Department misapplied the rationale of In re H.B. The Department argued its multiple violations of express statutory requirements should be deemed harmless because, although she advised the juvenile court she may have Cherokee ancestry through her maternal grandfather, the mother provided no additional evidence on appeal demonstrating the child is, in fact, an Indian child within the meaning of ICWA.   The court wrote that further inquiry is required in this case. On remand, the juvenile court must promptly direct the Department to make a meaningful and thorough inquiry regarding the child’s possible Indian ancestry, including interviews with extended family members and any other persons who may reasonably be expected to have information regarding the child’s tribal membership or eligibility for membership and contact with the Cherokee tribe or any other tribes that may have such information. View "In re Rylei S." on Justia Law