The Judge’s Perspective

The Judge’s Perspective

Note: All articles in this edition refer to the Guest Editor’s column found here.

Stefan Knight will likely find himself not only facing felony charges as a result of the injuries sustained by his son Miles when Mr. Knight gave his son a “bad time out,” but the Knight children are very likely to be the subject of petitions filed in juvenile dependency court by Children & Family Services (CFS) under Welfare & Institutions Code, Section 300. Miles has suffered a substantial injury inflicted non-accidentally when his father disciplined him. This poses a risk not only to Miles but potentially demonstrates a substantial risk to Whitney as well. Additionally, there are potential allegations of both substance abuse and domestic violence, depending on facts gathered by CFS during its investigation.

At the initial appearance in the juvenile dependency proceeding, the court will address the issue of whether Miles and Whitney should be detained from one or both parents, or whether there are services that if offered to one or both parents would negate the need to detain the children.

The court will consider potential red flags that this event is not an isolated incident of a domestic disturbance in the household. For example, the children reported being afraid of their father when he got angry. The children also engaged in behaviors with one another and with their mother that was similar to behavior exhibited by the parents earlier in the day and leading up to the incident. The history of any domestic violence or police contacts at the residence is a significant factor to be considered and, if there is a history, what if any steps the non-aggressor parent took to protect the children from exposure to this violent behavior (i.e., seeking a restraining order, engaging in therapeutic services). In addition, insofar as both parents consumed a significant amount of alcohol and engaged in a loud verbal dispute with the children present in the home, substance abuse appears to have played a factor in the incident. The court will consider this as well.

Given the age of the children, the severity of the injuries and issues of substance abuse, the court would consider whether the children should at a minimum be detained from their father pending a finding of jurisdiction and, if found, disposition. Any court-ordered visitation between the father and the children may depend on whether a criminal protective order has been issued in a related criminal proceeding. Such an order would have a significant impact on any court-ordered reunification services. If there is coordination between the two proceedings, the terms of the criminal protective order would be made subject to any order issued in the juvenile dependency proceeding.

With respect to the mother, depending on what is discovered regarding the history of domestic violence and substance abuse issues with this family, the court will consider whether the children may be able to be safely maintained in the home. Certain factors may weigh in favor of detention from the mother as well: although she immediately sought medical care for Miles, she also smelled of alcohol at the hospital. If she drove Miles to the hospital while impaired, there are concerns of risk to the children. In addition, if she had knowledge of any prior violence by the father, her actions in leaving the children in his care, with directions that he impose discipline, all the while knowing that he was under the influence of alcohol, the circumstances could militate in favor of detention. Absent these circumstances, the court may consider leaving the children in the mother’s care under certain conditions to be imposed. For example, the court would consider ordering that the father vacate the residence (since he has posted bond on criminal charges), and require that the mother demonstrate a capacity and willingness to protect the children from the father, abide by any no-contact order, and engage in immediate services relating to substance abuse and domestic violence.

If the children are detained from both parents pending resolution of the issue of jurisdiction and disposition, there may be relatives who can be considered for relative placement. It would be less traumatizing for them to be placed with a family member rather than in foster care with a stranger. Also, the children should be placed together and allowed to attend their schools of origin so as not to disrupt their sibling relationship and their education.