California Court of Appeals, Second District, Seventh Division
In re MAYA L., A Person Coming Under the Juvenile Court Law.
ASHLEY L., Defendant and Appellant. LOS ANGELES COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILY SERVICES, Plaintiff and Respondent,
APPEAL from an order of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County No. CK96699, Deborah Losnick, Juvenile Court Referee.
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
Karen J. Dodd, under appointment by the Court of Appeal, for Defendant and Appellant.
Richard D. Weiss, Acting County Counsel; Dawyn R. Harrison, Assistant County Counsel; and Navid Nakhjavani, Deputy County Counsel, for Plaintiff and Respondent.
Ashley L. (mother) was arrested for child endangerment after her four-year old daughter, Maya L., fell from the trunk of a moving vehicle. Maya was subsequently declared a dependent child of the court pursuant to Welfare and Institutions Code section 300 and placed in the custody of her father, Aaron H. (father). At the six-month review hearing, the trial court terminated jurisdiction and entered a family law order providing father physical and legal custody of Maya. Mother appeals, arguing that the trial court applied the wrong legal standard at the six-month review hearing. We affirm.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
A. Initial Referral and Detention
1. Events preceding the section 300 petition
Mother and father lived in separate residences and shared custody of their daughter, Maya L., pursuant to family court order. On November 22, 2012 (Thanksgiving Day), the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) received a referral from law enforcement reporting that Maya, then four-years old, had been thrown from the trunk of a car. According to the referral, Maya’s maternal aunt had been driving with mother while the child was seated in the rear of the vehicle. Mother was inebriated and began striking the maternal aunt in the head. The maternal aunt pulled to the side of the road and the three occupants exited the vehicle. When mother turned away, the aunt placed Maya in the trunk and drove away. The trunk opened while the vehicle was moving, causing Maya to fall. Responding officers arrested mother for public intoxication, child endangerment and assault. Mother was placed in a detention facility.
DCFS obtained a police report of the incident, which stated that the maternal aunt had been visiting Los Angeles. According to the aunt, she had driven mother and Maya to Thanksgiving dinner where mother consumed “multiple glasses of wine and was possibly sneaking additional hard alcohol.” During the drive home, mother became “belligerent and angry because she thought [the aunt] was too concerned with how much alcohol [mother] consumed. [Mother] was cursing and would not calm down.” Mother eventually “exploded, ” striking the aunt in the head with a closed fist. Mother also bit aunt’s arm, which left a visible mark, and pulled the aunt’s head back by
her hair. The aunt then pulled the car over to let mother out of the vehicle. Mother unbuckled Maya and intended to leave with the child on foot. The aunt, who was concerned for Maya’s safety, attempted to place the child back in the car while mother was distracted. Mother, however, saw what was occurring and attempted to intervene. The aunt then placed Maya in the trunk, believing she could drive a short distance and then retrieve the child from the trunk once they were away from mother. However, as the car pulled away from the curb, the trunk opened and Maya fell on to the ground. An undercover officer observed the events and immediately pulled over the aunt. Maya scraped her knee, but was otherwise uninjured.
Mother got into an altercation with responding officers, scratching one officer in the face before being pulled to the ground by other officers while screaming “‘fuck you [aunt] this is your fault.’” During an interview with the aunt, an officer observed a large patch of her hair fall to the ground. Mother was arrested and placed in custody. Maya was examined by paramedics and later released to father.
DCFS interviewed Maya at the police station. The child reported that mother was yelling “‘at my auntie... [and] was very mad’” because the aunt had said some “‘bad things’” about mother. Maya further reported that “‘[t]hey were arguing about all the drinks they drank all day.’” According to Maya, mother drank “‘a lot and grandma gets mad because [mother] drinks.’” Maya denied ever being abused or touched inappropriately.
DCFS also attempted to interview mother at the police station. Mother appeared to be intoxicated and was very upset that the aunt had not been arrested. Mother became belligerent, kicking the cell door and demanding that she be provided a phone call. DCFS terminated the interview “due to the mother’s uncooperative behavior... and being intoxicated.” During a second interview the next day, mother denied having any issues with alcohol and reported that she suffered from severe depression.
DCFS also met with father, who had traveled to the police station to take custody of Maya. Father told the social worker this was not mother’s first incident involving alcohol, explaining that she “gets drunk” and had been previously admitted to the hospital after the maternal grandmother (grandmother) found her “passed out.” Father reported that Maya was the subject of an open family court matter and that he was willing to take full custody of her.
Several days after mother’s arrest, DCFS interviewed Maya’s grandmother, who denied the referral allegations against mother and denied mother had any
alcohol issues. Grandmother admitted, however, that mother had been taken to the emergency room two years earlier because she had “passed out from alcohol use.”
2. Section 300 petition and detention
On November 28, 2012, DCFS filed a petition alleging Maya fell within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court pursuant to section 300, subdivisions (a) and (b). The petition included an identical allegation under each subdivision asserting that mother “failed to protect the child in that the mother continued to physically assault the maternal aunt, while the maternal aunt was driving with the child as a passenger in the vehicle. Such violent conduct... endangers the child’s physical health and safety...” The petition included two additional allegations under subdivision (b) asserting that that mother had a “history of substance abuse” and suffered “mental and emotional problems” that “rendered her incapable of providing regular [or adequate] care” to the child. The petition did not include any allegations pertaining to father.
In support of the petition, DCFS filed a detention report summarizing its initial investigation. DCFS recommended that the court order the child to remain placed with father and provide mother monitored visits. The report also recommended services for mother, including parenting classes, substance abuse treatment and individual therapy.
At the detention hearing, the court made findings against the mother only, noting that father was not named in the petition and was not an offending parent. Maya was ordered detained from her mother and placed with father, who did not oppose the petition. The matter was set for a contested jurisdictional and dispositional hearing.
B. Jurisdiction and Disposition
1. DCFS’s jurisdiction/disposition report
On January 14, 2013, DCFS provided a “Jurisdiction/Disposition Report” indicating that mother had pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of “obstruction of justice” arising out of the Thanksgiving night incident. The report also included summaries of additional interviews DCFS had conducted with the family members. During an interview on January 7, 2013, Maya told DCFS that mother and aunt “were arguing about their drinks and my mom was biting her on the arm.” She also reported that mother drank alcohol at home, but father did not. Maya told the social worker she wanted to continue living with her “father and stepmother.”
During an interview on January 3, 2013, father told DCFS he had dated mother for two months while living in Los Angeles and then moved back to New York to finish college. While living in New York, mother called and informed him she was pregnant. Mother initially moved to New York to be with father, but “‘it didn’t work out so she moved back.’” Father reported the relationship had failed in part because mother had a “‘bad drinking problem’” and would “‘hit [him] around and pass out places.’” Father later moved to California to be closer to Maya, but mother would not allow him to see the child. Mother and father eventually went to family court and obtained a joint custody order. The family court order prohibited either parent from consuming alcohol while caring for Maya. Father also informed DCFS mother had ongoing issues with alcohol, explaining that “every year something like this has happened.” He also reported that over the past several years, mother had sent him and his family numerous racist, homophobic text messages. Father opposed grandmother serving as Maya’s visitation monitor because he believed grandmother had enabled mother’s drinking.
DCFS interviewed mother in the presence of grandmother. Mother reported she had been diagnosed with severe depression and was taking medication. Although mother admitted she sometimes took her medication while drinking alcohol, she denied having a history of alcohol abuse, explaining “[it is] more of a history of high stress and situations stemming mostly from my daughter’s father.” Mother also admitted she had consumed alcohol on the night of her arrest but did not believe she was intoxicated. Mother asserted that, on Thanksgiving night, the aunt had become upset because her “‘sexual preference was outed’” during a dinner party. Mother denied that any altercation occurred between her and the aunt and denied having struck aunt while she was driving. Mother claimed she had repeatedly asked to be let out of the car and felt that she was being kidnapped. Mother also stated she intended to “file charges” against the aunt “after all of this." Grandmother became upset during the interview, and blamed the incident on the aunt.
DCFS also re-interviewed the aunt, who confirmed the accuracy of her prior statements to the police. The aunt expressed concern that mother’s mental state was deteriorating and believed mother was in need of more intense psychiatric counseling.
In its assessment and evaluation, DCFS concluded mother had “unresolved alcohol issues” and “unresolved mental health issues.” DCFS also reported that mother had difficulty co-parenting with father, which was exacerbated by grandmother. DCFS believed that Maya would be at substantial risk of harm if returned to mother based on numerous factors, including mother’s ongoing alcohol abuse, her denial of having any problem with alcohol, her failure to accept responsibility for her actions and her inability to understand how her actions had caused her child to be detained from her.
DCFS noted that Maya was doing well in the care of her father, who provided a safe and stable home environment. DCFS recommended the court order Maya to remain in the care of father and his wife with family maintenance services. It further recommended that the court provide mother monitored visitation and reunification services, including drug testing and treatment, a parenting course and individual therapy.
2. Addendum to the jurisdiction and disposition report
In an addendum report dated April 12, 2013, DCFS reported that father had expressed ongoing concerns with grandmother’s role as monitor for Maya. Father informed DCFS that during a recent visit, Maya had returned from mother’s house crying because mother and grandmother yelled at her for not inviting them to her birthday party. Father also provided DCFS a copy of an email mother had sent to the parents of a child in Maya’s class that accused him of being “sadistic” and “ly[ing] about everything.” Mother encouraged these parents to write letters describing her relationship with Maya, which she intended to present to the court. Father provided DCFS with numerous other emails in which mother and grandmother accused him of lying and failing to provide Maya with proper hygiene and nourishment.
DCFS reported that although father was “taking wonderful care of Maya, ” the child appeared too stressed “from visits” with mother and was “feeling torn and... in the middle.” DCFS concluded that mother’s complaints regarding Maya’s hygiene and nutrition were unfounded and had no concerns with leaving the child in father’s care. DCFS believed mother was “highly focused on past issues in her relationship with [father] and their prior family law case.” According to DCFS, mother’s recent emails demonstrated she was attempting to “discredit father.” Although mother was participating in drug and alcohol treatment and had passed all of her drug tests, she had failed to initiate individual counseling.
In its addendum report, DCFS recommended closing the matter pursuant to section 361.2 with a family law order awarding custody of Maya to father.
3. Hearing on jurisdiction and disposition
At the jurisdiction hearing, counsel for mother requested that the court dismiss the petition. Father’s counsel agreed with DCFS’s recommendation that the court sustain the petition and then terminate jurisdiction with a family law order awarding father sole physical and joint legal custody of Maya. Maya’s counsel asked the court to retain jurisdiction to permit mother a chance to reunify. Counsel explained ...