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Sarah S v. the Superior Court of Orange County


December 22, 2010


Original proceedings; petition for a writ of mandate to challenge an order of the Superior Court of Orange County, Jane Shade, Temporary Judge. Super. Ct. Nos. DP019127 & DP019128

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bedsworth, J.

Sarah S. v. Super. Ct.



California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115(a), prohibits courts and parties from citing or relying on opinions not certified for publication or ordered published, except as specified by rule 8.1115(b). This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.


(Pursuant to Cal. Const., art. VI, § 21.) Petition denied.


Petitioner Sarah S. appeals from the order terminating reunification services with her two pre-school sons and ordering a hearing under Welfare and Institutions Code section 366.26*fn1 regarding termination of parental rights or establishing a guardianship for the boys. She claims she was not provided with reasonable reunification services. Because substantial evidence supports the juvenile court's ruling to the contrary, we affirm the order and deny the petition.*fn2


On July 1, 2009, police responded to a 911 call from petitioner Sarah S.'s house in San Bernardino County. They found Sarah passed out on the couch. Sarah's friend, who had called the police, reported that Sarah's sons, Timothy and Mathew, aged three and one, were unsupervised and one of them was running around the house with a kitchen knife. The police took the two boys into protective custody and called social services. The boys were placed in foster care, while Sarah went to the hospital in Redlands, where she tested positive for Benzodiazepine and opiates. She claimed her boyfriend had beaten her when she told him she was pregnant.*fn3 She became violent with the nurses and was admitted to the hospital under section 5150. She remained in the hospital's psychiatric ward for 10 days.

During that time, the San Bernardino County Superior Court held a detention hearing for Timothy and Mathew. They were found to come under section 300 and were ordered removed from the home. The court ordered the county to provide reunification services and allow Sarah weekly supervised visits.*fn4 A case plan was filed on July 23, 2009, along with an extensive discussion of the evidence supporting the court's jurisdiction and disposition.

Sarah moved to Orange County in September 2009, and the case was transferred to Orange County Superior Court in December 2009. The Orange County Social Services Agency (SSA) took over, and a social worker was assigned to the case.

In January 2010, the Orange County court adopted the case plan developed in San Bernardino with minor changes. As to reunification services, the case plan specified enrollment in an approved personal empowerment program (PEP), which focused on domestic violence and anger management, among other issues; individual psychological counseling; enrollment in a parenting class; and drug and alcohol testing. Sarah also had to join a 12-step program and provide proof of attendance.

Sarah enrolled in all of the required programs. She was also allowed to have supervised visits with Mathew and Timothy, who were by this time two and three years old, respectively. Sarah's fifth child was born in February, 2010. SSA also detained the baby, soon after her birth.*fn5

During the first part of 2010, Sarah appeared to be on track to complete her case plan and get her sons back, despite a few snags (such as testing positive for alcohol in March). She attended her classes and her therapy sessions, and her visits with Timothy and Mathew evoked high praise from the social workers.

Toward the end of April, however, things began to go downhill. Sarah became disruptive in her classes, and her compliance with the substance abuse component of her case plan suffered. In early April, she began to see a psychiatrist, who prescribed anti-depressants. Although Sarah initially showed some improvement, the medication soon proved to be ineffective. Sarah's main problem, the psychiatrist felt, was her belief that everyone else was responsible for her difficulties, while she herself was blameless. This theme played repeatedly in the reports on which the juvenile court relied in making its ultimate findings.

By May 2010, the situation had unraveled completely. Sarah was using foul and abusive language to the social workers and monitors, both during her visits (sometimes in front of the boys) and in her communications with SSA between visits.*fn6 As a result, the visits were frequently terminated early. Sometimes Sarah missed visits entirely, and she declared she would no longer participate in random drug testing. Between May 13 and June 10, she refused to see the boys at all. She stated in June that she was drinking and that she was drunk during visits with her baby daughter. By June she had quit individual therapy and the perinatal program. Visits sometimes featured her shouting at personnel at the visitation sites, again in front of the boys. Sarah's hostility and erratic behavior increased throughout the summer - now including racial slurs - until finally in July the social worker recommended that visitation be stopped entirely.*fn7 Although Sarah was always affectionate with the boys and never lashed out at them, the reports of her visits paint a picture of someone who was looking to pick a fight with anyone who annoyed or crossed her in any way. For example, during one visit in late July, Sarah yelled at one of the peace officers sitting at a desk when he stood up at the same time she did. The officer assured her that it was just a coincidence and not some kind of belligerent gesture, as she appeared to think.

The six-month review hearing mandated by section 366.21, subdivision (e) took place over several days during August and September 2010. By that time, Timothy and Mathew had actually been detained for over a year. Sarah testified extensively. The senior social worker assigned to the case also testified. Status reports dating between January and August 2010 were admitted into evidence, which reports gave detailed accounts of Sarah's conduct. On the stand, Sarah either flatly denied making many of the abusive, hostile, or negative statements attributed to her in the reports or defended her actions by blaming the social workers, the monitors, the boys' foster parents, her counselors, and the facilities where her visits with the boys took place.

The court issued its findings and rulings on September 30, 2010. The court found that Sarah "is unable to control her explosive anger and manipulative conduct when her children are present even when social workers, visitation monitors or sheriff's deputies are present. [Sarah] blames her problems on others. [Sarah] lacks insight into her behavior." The court also ruled that "[SSA] has complied with the case plan by making reasonable efforts to return the children to a safe home through the provision of reasonable services designed to aid in overcoming the problems that led to the initial removal," and Sarah "had made minimal efforts toward alleviating or mitigating the causes necessitating placement." The court terminated reunification services and set a hearing under section 366.26.

Sarah filed her petition on October 21, 2010. SSA opposed the petition, and counsel for Timothy and Mathew joined in SSA's opposition.


Sarah challenges the orders terminating services and setting a hearing under Section 366.26 on the ground of lack of substantial evidence of reasonable reunification services. Specifically, Sarah claims she should have been referred to an "anger management program" and she should have received a psychiatric evaluation and mood-stabilizing medication. Because she was referred to a different program and did not receive the evaluation or medication, she feels she did not receive reasonable reunification services.

"In juvenile cases, as in other areas of the law, the power of the appellate court asked to assess the sufficiency of the evidence begins and ends with a determination as to whether or not there is any substantial evidence, whether or not contradicted, which will support the conclusion of the trier of fact. All conflicts must be resolved in favor of the respondent and all legitimate inferences indulged in to uphold the verdict, if possible." (In re Katrina C. (1988) 201 Cal.App.3d 540, 547.)

A finding that reasonable reunification services have been offered must be supported by "'clear and convincing evidence.'" (Robert L. v. Superior Court (1996) 45 Cal.App.4th 619, 625, quoting In re Monica C. (1994) 31 Cal.App.4th 296, 306.) Again, the standard of review is sufficiency of the evidence. (Id. at p. 626.) "In reviewing the reasonableness of the reunification services provided . . ., we must also recognize that in most cases, more services might have been provided, and the services which are provided are often imperfect. The standard is not whether the services provided were the best that might have been provided, but whether they were reasonable under the circumstances." (Elijah R. v. Superior Court (1998) 66 Cal.App.4th 965, 969.)

Anger management was one of the issues covered in Sarah's PEP program, described as focusing on "domestic violence, including such issues as: power/control; non-physical/physical violence; anger management; empathy training and issues surrounding fear/intimidation." Sarah testified her PEP program benefited her and taught her techniques for dealing with arguments and tension, as well as with domestic violence. Sarah now insists, however, that SSA should have offered her the "52-week Anger Management Batterer's Treatment Program" instead of the PEP.*fn8

The record contains no reference to a "52-week anger management batterer's treatment program." It does refer to a 52-week batterer's program, for instigators of domestic violence. True to her perception of herself as victim rather than perpetrator, Sarah told her social worker in June 2010 that she would not participate in a batterer's program, and she specifically testified during the review hearing that she did not need a 52-week batterer's program. Given her inconsistent compliance with the much shorter programs in which she was enrolled, there is little reason to think Sarah would have stuck with a year-long program she believed she did not need and in which she explicitly refused to participate.

Moreover, Sarah and her counsel were present at the hearing on January 15, 2010, during which the Orange County juvenile court approved the case plan. In fact, Sarah was represented by counsel throughout the entire reunification process. If Sarah believed she needed a longer anger management program, she had only to speak up. (See In re Christina L. (1992) 3 Cal.App.4th 404, 416.) This issue was raised for the first time during closing argument at the six-month hearing; too much time had passed by then. "'"If any other rule were to obtain, the party would in most cases be careful to be silent as to his objections until it would be too late to obviate them, and the result would be that few judgments would stand the test of an appeal." [Citation.]'" (Ibid., quoting Sommer v. Martin (1921) 55 Cal.App. 603, 610.)

As to not receiving a psychiatric evaluation and mood-stabilizing drugs, during the initial hearing on January 15, 2010, the requirement that Sarah undergo a "psychiatric/psychological evaluation," originally part of the case plan, was stricken, presumably with Sara's consent, since both she and her lawyer were present at the hearing. Nevertheless, Sarah was receiving psychiatric care as of April 2010, and she received anti-depressants in May, to no effect.*fn9

After Sarah was refused re-entry into her perinatal program in June, because of her disruptive behavior and her absences, the perinatal counselor recommended Sarah enter an in-patient program, and the rest of the team agreed. Sarah initially refused to consider entering a residential program. Upon further reflection, she agreed to look into it, and the social worker provided some referrals. When the social worker followed up to see whether Sarah had enrolled in any program, however, Sarah responded that she could not afford them. "[S]he needed to get her pedicure and her nails done and her tan and that her hair needed to be [dyed], and she needed money to provide those services for herself while she was in treatment." Sarah herself testified about her personal diagnosis that a residential program would not benefit her.

Sarah never took any steps to get into a residential program that could have included medications. Given her history of prescription drug abuse, it would have been the height of folly simply to prescribe mood-altering drugs and leave the administration of these drugs up to her.*fn10

As courts have frequently observed, reunification services are voluntary and cannot be forced on an unwilling parent. (See, e.g., In re Lynna B. (1979) 92 Cal.App.3d 682, 701; In re Christina L., supra, 3 Cal.App.4th at p. 414.) As one court stated, "The requirement that reunification services be made available to help a parent overcome those problems which led to the dependency of his or her minor children is not a requirement that a social worker take the parent by the hand and escort him or her to and through classes or counseling sessions. A parent whose children have been adjudged dependents of the juvenile court is on notice of the conduct requiring such state intervention. If such a parent in no way seeks to correct his or her own behavior or waits until the impetus of an impending court hearing to attempt to do so, the legislative purpose of providing safe and stable environments for children is not served by forcing the juvenile court to go 'on hold' while the parent makes another stab at compliance." (In re Michael S. (1987) 188 Cal.App.3d 1448, 1463, fn. 5.) Substantial evidence supports the conclusion SSA offered reasonable mental health services to Sarah. She either specifically disclaimed the services or failed to take advantage of what was made available to her.

The record in this case includes the lengthy and thorough San Bernardino Jurisdiction/Disposition Report, dated July 23, 2009, filed shortly after Mathew and Timothy were first removed from Sarah's home.*fn11 This report details a history of encounters with social services because of child abuse and neglect - as well as domestic violence, alcohol and prescription drug abuse, and mental instability - stretching back to 2002. What is remarkable about the report is the sense of deja vu it gives to the reports subsequently prepared in Orange County, which were exhibits at the hearing. Lying to social services - check. Seeing herself as a victim of everyone else's persecution - check. Denying drug abuse and mental instability in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary - check. Making scenes in front of her children - check. Rude, aggressive, and inflammatory behavior toward social workers - check. The San Bernardino social worker observed in July 2009, "The time is definitely now for [Sarah], currently pregnant with child number five, to raise her head and see that no one is fooled anymore by her endless excuses and stories and that if she does not get help, beginning with acknowledging her issues and desiring to make positive changes, she could very well be left with no children in her custody due to her seeming inability to truly put their needs ahead of her own."

Over a year later, after months of counseling, therapy, classes, and almost daily personal attention by her case worker, Sarah was still making excuses, still seeing herself as sinned against rather than sinning, and still refusing to acknowledge that she needed to make radical changes in order to be a proper parent to two small children. The prediction has come true; none of her five children is in her custody.

The record amply supports the juvenile court's determination that Sarah received reasonable reunification services. Sarah's problems, however, appear to be so deep-seated that years of services would barely make a dent in them. Her boys need to be cared for now, by adults who can truly put the children's needs first, as she cannot. "Childhood does not wait for the parent to become adequate." (In re Marilyn H. (1993) 5 Cal.4th 295, 310.)


The petition for extraordinary relief and request for stay are denied.


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