Monday, March 16, 2020

M.G. v. Superior Court (Cal. Ct. App. - March 16, 2020)

I appreciate this opinion today from the Court of Appeal.  Justice O'Leary is exactly right to tell the trial courts that it's not okay -- seriously, not okay -- to delay18-month review hearings in dependency cases until 30 months or so.  Yes, we know you're totally busy and overworked.  Still.  Gotta meet the deadlines in these things.  It's kids.  It's families.  It's important.

Similarly, I largely appreciate the outcome.  It's a troubling case.  The stuff at the outset looks very bad.  You can easily see this going totally sideways.  The SSA pretty coherently alleged that "the children were at risk of abuse or neglect because Father was incarcerated and Mother was using drugs, was homeless, and had exposed the children to domestic violence with her boyfriend, P.B."  Yeah, that's a problem.  According to the allegations, most of which are amply supported by the apparent facts, "Mother had an unresolved substance abuse problem with methamphetamine; Mother had a history of domestic violence with Father and P.B.; A.G. reported witnessing domestic violence between Mother and P.B.; Mother was not meeting the children’s medical needs; Father had a criminal history including offenses relating to substance abuse and domestic violence; Father was incarcerated; and Father had other children who had previously been removed from him."  You can see why this is all a problem.

At the same time, as the Court of Appeal notes, there was actual progress here once the kids were initially taken away and given to their Aunt.  Father and Mother got better.  Not perfect, for sure.  But definitely better than they were.  There's progress.  At least of a sort.  So you can see why the Court of Appeal might want to give them a continuing chance, rather than having their kids taken away from them for the duration.  Hence the remand.  I'm somewhat sympathetic to that.  Albeit at a more nervous level, I suspect, than the panel here.

And that's really my only slight critique.  The Court of Appeal treats this like an easy case.  It can't seem to understand why the trial court came out the way it did.  The language is largely categorical and dismissive of the trial court.  Whereas I tend to get it somewhat, and think it's a tough one, and even more so since we're not "in the trenches" like the trial judge.

Take the Father's drug use, for example.  The Court of Appeal thinks it's not a problem, and, in truth, it appears that neither did the trial court.  Because the guy generally tests clean.  Oh, except for those two tests in which the sample's overly diluted, which Father says was because he just drinks too much water at work. Maybe, but I mean, really?  Or that other test where he come up dirty but says it was because he had a poppy seed muffin.  Color me overly skeptical, Mr. History Of Substance Abuse and Incarcerated For It, but I'm not totally sure I'm buying your teenage explanations for the tests.

But whatever.  Okay.  Still.  The family is making progress.

But the Court of Appeal seems to think that everything's pretty much rosy, whereas the social worker has a definite different take.  The Court of Appeal is really quite harsh with her (Janet Ford).  And I think perhaps unreasonably so.  As just one example, take this statement by Justice O'Leary:

"Ford’s opinion, which the juvenile court apparently credited, that Mother and Father had not resolved their issues regarding domestic violence is perplexing given the parents’ full participation in their service plans. Ford testified her concern was the parents’ interactions continued."

My goodness.  Read the whole opinion and tell me if you don't agree with Ford.  Mother and Father definitely "had not resolved their issues regarding domestic violence."  It kept happening, including calls to the police etc.  There are restraining orders that are seemingly routinely violated, etc. etc.

That's clearly what bothered both Ms. Ford and the trial court.  Stuff kept happening, in ways that are definitely not good.  Now, maybe the Court of Appeal is right that there's no real certainty that this is going to harm the kids.  But just as a pure matter of fact, I feel positive that Ms. Ford is right that the parents have definitely not resolved their domestic violence issues.  So calling her belief in that regard "perplexing" and being totally confident that it won't affect the kids doesn't sit entirely right with me.

So, again, there's lots of things about this opinion that are great.  But I see a lot more gray here than the Court of Appeal.