In re Caden C.: The Supreme Court Recognizes No Parent is Perfect

“The dependency statutes were enacted to prevent harm to children. They prevent harm at the outset of the dependency process by removing children from situations where they are likely to suffer abuse or neglect. But they also prevent harm in the process of selecting permanent placement through the parental-benefit exception, by allowing certain children to preserve emotionally important parental relationships.” (In re Caden C. (2021) 11 Cal. 5th 614, 644 (“Caden C.”).)

At a hearing on termination of parental rights, the court is required to consider a “permanent plan” for a child in the following order of preference: adoption, legal guardianship, and long-term foster care. (Welf. & Inst. Code § 366.26, subd. (b)) The “parental-benefit exception” allows parents to prevent termination of their rights if, by a preponderance of the evidence, they can show: 1) “regular visitation and contact with the child, taking into account the extent of visitation permitted”; 2) “the child has a substantial, positive, emotional attachment to the parent — the kind of attachment implying that the child would benefit from continuing the relationship;” and 3) “terminating that attachment would be detrimental to the child even when balanced against the countervailing benefit of a new adoptive home.” (Caden C., supra, 11 Cal. 5th at 636; See also In re Autumn H. (1994) 27 Cal.App.4th 567; Welf. & Inst. Code § 366.26, subd. (c)(1)(B)(i); Evid. Code, § 115.)

The California Supreme Court’s 2021 decision in Caden C. gives parents and children a small ray of hope when parental rights are at stake. It clarifies preexisting law, recognizing the humanity of parents in juvenile court and the importance of children’s relationship with them. It also clearly instructs judges to stop adding conditions to the parental-benefit exception above and beyond those already required by statute.

Factual and Procedural Background

The Child Welfare Agency (“the Agency”) removed four-year-old Caden from his mother’s care due to her drug use, suicidal ideation, and homelessness. Caden was placed with a non-related extended family member (“NREFM”) before returning to his mother’s care in July, 2014. Mother received Family Maintenance services until June, 2016 when the Agency removed Caden again due to her relapse.

The court was prevented by statute from granting Mother additional services. It made an order placing seven-year-old Caden in long-term foster care, in part to give Mother time to regain stability and sobriety.

In January 2018, the court set a “Selection and Implementation Hearing” pursuant to Welfare and Institutions Code section 366.26 (“.26 hearing”). After four days of trial, including dueling expert testimony, the court did not terminate Mother’s parental rights, finding that it would be detrimental to Caden to do so. Now about nine years old, Caden’s two remaining options were either legal guardianship or continued long-term foster care. Caden’s NREFM caregiver asked that Caden remain in her home under a plan of long-term foster care due to her concerns about Mother’s behavior if the court ordered legal guardianship. The court granted that request, and the Agency and Caden’s attorney appealed.

The First District Court of Appeal reversed, holding Mother’s parental rights should have been terminated. It found that “no reasonable court could have concluded that a compelling justification had been made for forgoing adoption.” (In re Caden C. (2019) 34 Cal.App.5th 87, 115.) It opined that there was little chance Caden would ever return to his mother’s care and that Caden’s relationship with his mother was sometimes difficult, rocky, and had not been perfect for many, many years, which undercut the trial court’s findings. The appellate court argued that Mother’s failure to address the problems which led to the dependency meant “no reasonable court would apply the beneficial relationship exception …” (Id. at p. 112.) It remanded the case to the juvenile court, strongly suggesting termination of Mother’s parental rights. (Id. at p. 116.)

Supreme Court’s Ruling

On review, the Supreme Court reversed. Its opinion obliterates the idea that the parental-benefit exception should not apply due to a parent’s ongoing struggles with sobriety. The Supreme Court pointed out that “…when the court holds a section 366.26 hearing, it all but presupposes that the parent has not been successful in maintaining the reunification plan meant to address the problems leading to dependency.” (Caden C., supra, 11 Cal. 5th at 637.) “[M]aking a parent’s continued struggles with the issues leading to dependency, standing alone, a bar to the exception would effectively write the exception out of the statute.” (Ibid.) “The parent’s continuing difficulty with mental health or substance abuse may not be used as a basis for determining the fate of the parental relationship by assigning blame, making moral judgments about the fitness of the parent, or rewarding or punishing a parent.” (Id. at p. 638.) Nor can trial courts use the implausibility of future reunification to undermine the parental-benefit exception. “Even where it may never make sense to permit the child to live with the parent, termination may be detrimental.” (Id. at p. 634.)

The Supreme Court’s decision rebukes the idea floating around in lower courts that parents are not only required to meet the three elements of the parental-benefit exception but also must demonstrate a some additional “compelling reason . . . termination of parental rights would be detrimental to the child…” (Id. at p. 631.) Caden C. states proving the three statutory elements of the parental-benefit exception is compelling enough.

Conclusion

If you have a parent client who is facing termination of their parental rights, you should always consider presenting expert testimony about the bond between the parent and child. Attorneys representing children need to seriously consider supporting legal guardianship to protect their clients’ rights to maintain beneficial relationships with their parents.
Caden C. has given dependency practitioners a great deal of hope and clarity. Generally, if social workers and minors’ counsel support termination of parental rights, it is nearly impossible to prevent the termination from happening. Caden C. clearly removes the additional requirement of showing a further “compelling reason” used by trial courts and the Court of Appeal to justify termination of parental rights.

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