December 01, 2013

Juvenile Court Required to Address Youth’s Best Interests

Scott Trowbridge

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

In re Shannon M., 2013 WL 5943510 (Cal. Ct. App.).

Dependency jurisdiction of 18 year old could only be terminated after addressing her best interests, even though youth left physical custody of agency before turning 18. Statutory section listing criteria for terminating jurisdiction applies to all dependent youth. 

A child spent many years in foster care. Eventually, her mother was able to maintain sobriety and she was returned to her custody shortly before she turned 18. Around the time she turned 18, she and her mother had several arguments and she went to stay with a friend. Her mother reported she was willing to have her daughter return home. The agency sought to terminate dependency jurisdiction over the daughter. 

The youth opposed the termination of jurisdiction contending that she fell under provisions of the California Fostering Connections to Success Act (FCSA). The matter was set for a contested hearing. Before the hearing was held, the mother was arrested, released, and appeared to be on the run from the law. 

At a contested hearing, the youth argued that because the FCSA applied to her, the agency had to show that it was in her best interests to terminate jurisdiction. She also claimed that because she was homeless, it was in her best interests to be provided services. The agency countered that she had not been in agency custody when she turned 18 and she was under a family maintenance order; therefore, the original dependency jurisdiction criteria of safety would need to be met. The trial court agreed with the agency and found no basis for dependency jurisdiction over the youth. 

The youth appealed to the California Court of Appeals. 

The court first analyzed the different standards for termination of jurisdiction. It noted that when reunification services are being provided, a child should be returned home when the court finds the situation is safe. Further, jurisdiction will be terminated unless there is a risk that conditions will become unsafe without continued supervision. After reunification services are terminated, different standards apply. The court must find that another permanency plan is in the child’s best interests. The FCSA added the requirements that the youth be under a foster care order, be in an educational program, working, or medically unable to participate in school or work. 

The Court of Appeals examined the California statutes concerning the termination of jurisdiction under sections 364 and 391. The court held that while some sections of 391 only applied to youth who were in foster care placements when they turned 18, this did not imply that the entire section referenced only those youth. Some subsections referred to nonminor dependents generally (i.e. youth still under juvenile court dependency jurisdiction of any type).The court held that several section 391 provisions, including finding termination was in the youth’s best interest, applied to the youth’s case. 

Regarding whether the juvenile court properly exercised its discretion, the error in applying section 364 was not shown to be harmless. On one hand, the court focused on the youth’s independent living skills, which were more relevant to best interests, rather than the mother’s ability and willingness to support her, which was relevant to a safety standard. However, the court expressly made its decision on the safety standard, calling into question whether it would have made the same decision. 

The court reversed and remanded the juvenile court’s order terminating dependency jurisdiction.