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In Re Ethan C. et al., Persons Coming Under the Juvenile Court Law. v. William C

July 5, 2012


Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. CK-78508 Ct.App. 2/1 B219894 Judge: Sherri S. Sobel, Juvenile Court Referee

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

Under certain circumstances, found by a preponderance of evidence, and indicating that a minor child is bereft of care or support by a parent or guardian, or has suffered or risks actual or threatened serious injury, illness, emotional damage, or sexual abuse because of a custodial parent's or guardian's inadequacy, neglect, or mistreatment, the child may be adjudged a dependent of the juvenile court. (Welf. & Inst. Code, § 300.)*fn1 A dependency adjudication is a preliminary step that allows the juvenile court, within specified limits, to assert supervision over the endangered child's care. But it is merely a first step, and the system includes many subsequent safeguards to ensure that parental rights and authority will be restricted only to the extent necessary for the child's safety and welfare.

Thus, unless a custodial parent or guardian has abandoned or voluntarily relinquished the child, the court may not remove a dependent child from the parent's or guardian's physical custody unless it finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that such action is necessary to protect the child from serious harm. (§ 361, subd. (c).) Even if removal is ordered, the court must provide social services, including family reunification services, designed to facilitate the parent's or guardian's resumption of full custody and control, unless the court finds specified circumstances by clear and convincing evidence. (§ 361.5.) Only if the court permissibly denies reunification services, or such services have failed, may the court conduct permanency planning proceedings that contemplate a final termination of parental rights.

Among the findings allowing an initial adjudication of dependency is that "[t]he child's parent or guardian caused the death of another child through abuse or neglect." (§ 300, subd. (f), italics added (section 300(f)).) Here, a father's two young surviving children were adjudged juvenile court dependents, in part because of findings under section 300(f). These findings were based on evidence that, in violation of law, the father transported his third child, an 18-month-old daughter, in an automobile without securing her in a child safety seat, and she was fatally injured when another vehicle collided with their car. The Court of Appeal affirmed the juvenile court's judgment.

We granted the father's petition for review to address three issues: First, does the lethal neglect to which section 300(f) refers require criminal negligence, i.e., a degree of culpable misfeasance or malfeasance that would support the parent's or guardian's criminal conviction for causing a child's death? Second, does section 300(f) require discrete evidence and findings that the particular circumstances of the child fatality demonstrate a current risk of substantial harm to surviving children in the parent's or guardian's care? Third, what is the meaning of "caused," as used in section 300(f); i.e., is a substantial or contributing cause sufficient, and what is the effect, if any, of any intervening or superseding cause?

Like the Court of Appeal majority in this case, we conclude that section 300(f) does not limit its application to criminal negligence. On the contrary, section 300(f) allows (but does not require) the juvenile court to adjudge a child a dependent if the court finds that the want of ordinary care by the child's parent or guardian caused another child's death. We further conclude that the juvenile court may adjudicate dependency under section 300(f) without any additional evidence or finding that the circumstances surrounding the parent's or guardian's fatal negligence indicate a present risk of harm to surviving children in the parent's or guardian's custody.

Finally, we determine that normal concepts of legal causation apply under section 300(f). Here, we are persuaded, the father's negligent failure to secure his young daughter in a child safety seat was a substantial contributing cause of her death in an ensuing traffic accident. The father's counsel conceded as much in the juvenile court. Nor does the evidence permit a conclusion that the accident itself was an unforeseeable intervening or superseding event that absolves the father of causation responsibility. The "superseding cause" doctrine cannot apply where, as here, the duty the father breached is intended to guard against the precise, and thus foreseeable, risk that materialized, i.e., a young child's injury or death in a traffic collision.

Accordingly, we will affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeal.


Defendant William C. (William)*fn3 and his wife Kimberly G. (Kimberly) had three children, Ethan C. (Ethan), born in January 2006, Valerie C. (Valerie), born in November 2007, and Jesus C. (Jesus), born in November 2008. In March or April of 2009, William and Kimberly separated. Kimberly returned to her family's home, while Ethan, Jesus, and Valerie lived with William in the home of his mother (the children's paternal grandmother).

On June 17, 2009, William left Valerie in the care of his mother and sister. When he returned to the house, he noticed that Valerie's arm was injured. He decided to take her to the hospital to have the arm examined. During the trip, Valerie was not secured in a child safety seat; she sat on an adult relative's lap. En route to the hospital, another vehicle collided with William's car. Valerie died as the result of blunt force injuries. There is no indication William was at fault for the traffic accident itself.*fn4

A week after Valerie's death, the Department responded to a report that Ethan and Jesus were victims of general neglect by their parents. Investigation revealed that the household in which William was living with the children included as many as 20 persons. The conditions were unsanitary, and the children in the household were dirty and seemed unsupervised. In particular, three-year-old Ethan appeared to be a victim of inadequate care, and he showed signs of delayed development. He lacked language skills, was confused about the difference between day and night, did not know how to use eating utensils, and had several rotten teeth that required extraction.

The Department investigators were told that Kimberly had a history of sometimes suicidal depression, anger management problems, a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, and cognitive impairments that limited her functioning to the level of an 11 year old. They learned the couple had engaged in episodes of domestic violence, with Kimberly as the primary aggressor. Members of Kimberly's family indicated she could care take care of her children, but only with extensive help and guidance. A psychologist expressed serious reservations about her ability to do so. On the other hand, members of Kimberly's family insisted that the children had been seriously neglected in the home of William's relatives, and that Jesus and Ethan would be in danger if they remained there.

William expressed extreme remorse about the fatal accident. He told the investigators that Valerie's arm injury apparently happened when she fell out of bed while unsupervised. He explained that when he decided to take Valerie to the hospital, his car, which had a child safety seat, was being used by someone else, and he was unable to get another seat from Kimberly, so he drove to the hospital with Valerie sitting unsecured in his sister's lap. Kimberly indicated she was not sure William ever had a child safety seat.

Initially, William, Kimberly, and the Department agreed to a voluntary plan whereby Ethan and Jesus would be temporarily removed from the physical custody of the parents, who would be allowed monitored visits with the children and would participate in a family reunification program. William began parenting classes and grief counseling. However, the Department's concern about his failure to leave his mother's home and establish a safe living environment for Ethan and Jesus, the pending criminal investigation against him in connection with Valerie's death,*fn5 and Kimberly's serious mental health, cognitive, anger management, and physical violence issues, led to a departmental recommendation that the juvenile court take jurisdiction.

On August 18, 2009, the Department filed a dependency petition alleging that Ethan and Jesus came within the juvenile court's jurisdiction under the provisions of section 300, subdivisions (a), (b), (f), and (j). Under subdivisions (a) and (b), the petition alleged that the parents' history of domestic violence placed the children at risk of serious harm (allegations a-1, b-2). The petition further alleged under subdivision (b) that the children were placed in an endangering situation, and were at risk of serious harm, because Kimberly's cognitive limitations required the provision of extensive services to enable her to properly supervise and care for her children (allegation b-3). Finally, the petition alleged under subdivisions (b), (f), and (j) that William had placed Ethan and Jesus at serious risk by driving their sibling, Valerie, without the use of a child safety seat, which omission resulted in Valerie's death in a traffic accident (allegations b-1, f-1, j-1).

After a detention hearing that same day, and finding statutory cause, the juvenile court ordered Ethan and Jesus removed from the parents' physical custody pending a jurisdiction/dispositional hearing. The court authorized the Department to place the children with any suitable relative, or in foster care, and the parents were granted monitored visits.

The jurisdictional/dispositional hearing occurred on October 22, 2009. As noted, both parties waived trial and submitted on the basis of the reports prepared by the Department's social workers. William's counsel was permitted to argue, and did argue, that the allegations under section 300, subdivisions (b), (f), and (j) should not be sustained insofar as they were based on William's failure to secure Valerie in a child safety seat.

In making this argument, William's counsel first asserted the Department reports were mistaken in claiming that Valerie was thrown from the car in the accident. Counsel represented that the Department's attorney "was willing" to enter a stipulation to that effect. According to counsel, "[Valerie] was not thrown from the car. [William's] mother was thrown from the car from the front seat. [Valerie] sustained head injuries in the backseat and died from blunt force trauma to the head." However, counsel agreed, "it is true, as alleged, that [Valerie] died from injuries sustained as a result of not being strapped in a safety seat. That is what it says." (Italics added.)

Nonetheless, counsel urged, dependency jurisdiction over surviving children cannot be based on a parent's mere ordinary negligence causing death to another child; the parent's acts or omissions, he insisted, must have risen to the level of criminal negligence. William's failure to secure Valerie in a child safety seat, counsel argued, was no more than ordinary negligence, and thus would not support jurisdiction.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the court ordered allegations a-1 (domestic violence raising danger of nonaccidental injury to children) and b-1 (danger to siblings from Valerie's death while not restrained in child safety seat) dismissed or stricken. However, the court sustained, by a preponderance of evidence, allegations b-2 (risk of harm to children from parents' domestic violence) and b-3 (danger to children from Kimberly's cognitive impairments) and the remaining allegations based on the fatal traffic accident (allegations f-1, j-1). On the safety seat issue, the court observed, "the law is absolutely clear about buckling a child in a child safety seat. I mean, I can't even imagine what the argument could possibly be. [¶] . . . The [section] 300([f]) count says the following: The child's parent or guardian caused the death of another child through abuse or neglect. [¶] He neglected to put his one-year-old child in a child safety seat . . . ."

The court adjudged Ethan and Jesus to be dependent children. By clear and convincing evidence, the court further found that returning physical custody to William and Kimberly would create a substantial risk of danger to the children's physical and emotional well-being, and that there were no reasonable means of protecting them without removing them from the parents' physical custody. Accordingly, the court placed the children under the Department's physical supervision. With the Department's approval, the court further ordered that William and Kimberly should be allowed monitored visits with the children, and should receive family reunification services.

William appealed, urging that the allegations under subdivisions (f) and (j) of section 300 (allegations f-1 and j-1, respectively) could not be sustained on the basis of his mere civil negligence in failing to secure Valerie in a child safety seat.*fn6 William also argued there was insufficient evidence to sustain the allegations under subdivision (b) of section 300 concerning danger to the children from the parents' domestic violence and Kimberly's cognitive impairments (allegations b-2 and b-3, respectively). The Department also appealed, asserting that the trial court had improperly dismissed the allegations under subdivision (b) of section 300 that were also based on the safety seat incident (allegation b-1).

In a split decision, the Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District, Division One, rejected William's arguments and accepted the Department's. The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's dismissal of allegation b-1, but otherwise affirmed.

In the Court of Appeal, William made two arguments that Valerie's traffic death while she was unrestrained in a child safety seat could not be a basis for dependency jurisdiction. First, William urged, as in the trial court, that the "abuse or neglect" leading to a child fatality, as specified in section 300(f), requires criminal negligence -- flagrant, aggravated, or reckless conduct -- not a mere ordinary breach of care such as his single failure to secure Valerie properly in his vehicle. Second, he insisted that the lack of a safety seat was not a "substantial contributing cause" of Valerie's death, which was the result of a traffic accident in which another driver was entirely at fault.

In rejecting the first argument, the Court of Appeal majority noted that section 300(f) requires only a parent's or guardian's "abuse or neglect" (italics added) as a cause of another child's death. Nothing in the statute's plain words, the majority noted, suggests that "neglect" means anything more than ordinary negligence. If there is ambiguity, the majority concluded, it is resolved by the legislative history of section 300(f), on which William's argument also relied.

As both William and the Court of Appeal noted, prior to 1996, dependency jurisdiction under section 300(f) required the parent's or guardian's criminal conviction of causing another child's death. The stated purposes of the 1996 revision were to eliminate the delay attendant on criminal proceedings, and to substitute a civil (preponderance of evidence) for a criminal (beyond reasonable doubt) standard of proof.

William urged, however, that the implicit requirement of a criminal degree of negligence was unchanged by the 1996 amendment. The majority disagreed. The Legislature, the majority reasoned, sought to lessen the burden of establishing a "child fatality" basis for dependency jurisdiction by reverting to language that simply requires neglect by a parent or guardian, resulting in the death of another child. Such a construction, the majority observed, is consistent with the dependency statute's civil nature, and with its non-penal purpose to protect children who are at risk in their parents' or guardians' care. Hence, the majority concluded, the allegations based on William's failure to secure Valerie in a child safety seat, after which she died in a traffic accident, were properly sustained.*fn7

The Court of Appeal dissent urged it was unnecessary to determine what level of negligence is necessary for dependency jurisdiction under section 300(f), because that provision requires that the surviving children under a parent's or guardian's care have suffered, or are currently at risk of, physical, sexual, or emotional harm. In the dissenter's view, William's single failure to secure Valerie in a child safety seat, however tragic its consequences, was insufficient evidence of current risk of injury or harm to Ethan and Jesus.

William sought review, raising the "criminal negligence" and "current risk of harm" issues.*fn8 We granted review, and directed that, in addition to the arguments raised by the petition, the parties address the meaning of "caused," as used in section 300(f). Thus, our order provided that "[i]n addition to the issues specified in the petition for review, the parties are ordered to brief the following issue: What is the definition of the word 'caused' in the context of dependency jurisdiction under Welfare and Institutions Code section 300, subdivision (f)? Does it mean the sole cause, or ...

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