Monday, May 04, 2020

In re S.O. (Cal. Ct. App. - May 4, 2020)

I'm not a thousand percent sure why we're hearing this case.

It's one of the thousands of cases that tells a depressingly sad tale.  Child gets placed in a foster home when he's 13 based on physical abuse by his stepfather and his mother's failure to protect him.  Less than five months later, he gets declared a ward of the court for sodomizing a six-year old foster child.  Which apparently follows sexual abuse by his own stepfather.

So he's both an abused child (dependency court) as well as an abuser himself (ward of the court).

Shortly thereafter, Child's mother stops trying to even contact him.  No one knows where she is, even now.  He's got no other family around either.  So he gets placed in a group home.  Which he hates and runs away from on multiple occasions.  While he's away, he's allegedly sex trafficked and has been "using drugs and having sex with males and females for drugs" (his drugs of choice are heroin and methamphetamine).  Meanwhile, sometime in 2019, Child drops off the grid entirely.  He's 16 years old, and no one knows where he is.  No school, no services, nothing.  There's a bench warrant out for him, but good luck finding him until the next time he's picked up.

But even though he's totally gone, there's an issue of which department has "jurisdiction" over him. Should he still be treated as a dependent (for being abused) or a ward (for doing the abusing)?

My overall practical reaction is:  "Who cares?"  Sort that out when you find him.  Before then, it's not like you're going to be able to anything for the guy.  So wait 'til he gets picked up, figure out where he is at at that point, and go on from there.  Maybe he's 60 years old by the time you find him.  Maybe he is a mass murderer.  Maybe he's dead.  All of those various possibilities would result in treating him a different manner.  Figure it out then.

But no.  We want to decide now.  So social services files a motion, his counsel shows up and argues the thing, and a decision is made.

Jurisprudentially, his lawyer makes the argument that the due process precludes a hearing in which the party at issue (the child) is absent.  But the Court of Appeal says that he waived his right to be present by ditching.  Which is normally true, but a strange result in this context.  If Child had gotten a piece of paper saying that there'd be a hearing on X date about his status etc., and he absconded after that, yeah, I can see a waiver.  But it seems like the Court of Appeal is saying that, more broadly, when you're in dependency status, running away suffices to waive all your appearance rights, even for hearings that haven't yet been noticed.  That seems to go way too far.

But let's assume for a moment that we're just talking about (1) this particular hearing, one for which (2) the kid had specific notice before he ditched.  There are lots of reasons to prefer to have the child present at the time.  If only so we can ask him questions and figure out what we want to do with him.  It's his life, after all.  We probably want to get an update and to have him there, no?

But, again, let's assume that we can extend the forfeiture doctrine and say:  "Tough luck.  You're not there.  So your lawyer will just make whatever arguments she thinks you might want to make.  With whatever evidence she happens to stumble across in your absence.  Next time don't ditch."

Okay.  So, in that event, just one question:

Why are we hearing the appeal?

The kid clearly didn't authorize the appeal, since he hasn't been in touch.  The only one who filed the appeal was the lawyer, without the Child's input or consent.  And if the Child forfeited his right to be at the hearing by absconding, why doesn't he similarly forfeit his right to appeal for the same reason? We've got the whole "fugitive disentitlement" doctrine that dismisses appeals in such circumstances.  Why go on with the thing at all at this point?

The Court of Appeal explains forfeiture on the due process point.  But doesn't address why that same doctrine doesn't equally apply to the appeal itself.

Doctrine aside, I just don't know how it advances the ball that much to do these things now.  You've got social services on one side, which doesn't really have to do anything until the child is found, and the child on the other, who's clearly got much bigger issues in life that this.  So that leaves one lawyer taking directions from his client (social services) and another lawyer deciding for herself what should be done, with multiple layers of the judiciary deciding a hypothetical case about who'll have control over this child if and when he's eventually discovered.  All resulting in a fair degree of expense and procedural and doctrinal complexity.

Why not just wait?

It's admittedly not my field.  But that's the question with which I'm left after reading today's opinion.