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In re M.R.

California Court of Appeals, Second District, Fifth Division

January 6, 2017

In re M.R. et al., Persons Coming Under the Juvenile Court Law. LOS ANGELES COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILY SERVICES, Plaintiff and Respondent,
v.
A.T. et al., Defendants and Appellants.

          Certified for publication as modified 2/1/17

         APPEAL from an order of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. DK13214 Anabelle G. Cortez, Judge.

         Affirmed.

          Maureen L. Keaney, under appointment by the Court of Appeal, for Defendant and Appellant A.T.

          David A. Hamilton, under appointment by the Court of Appeal, for Defendant and Appellant J.R.

          Office of the County Counsel, Mary C. Wickham, County Counsel, R. Keith Davis, Acting Assistant County Counsel, Sarah Vesecky, Senior Deputy County Counsel, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

          BAKER, J.

         Mother A.T. (Mother) and father Joshua R. (Father) are the parents of a daughter, M.R., and a son, J.R. At the time of the events relevant to this appeal, the children were four years old and 21 months old, respectively. The Department of Children and Family Services (Department) filed a dependency petition seeking juvenile court jurisdiction over both children after learning Mother had been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol with her two children in the car. The parents contend this was a one-time incident that is insufficient to support the juvenile court's finding that their children were at substantial risk of suffering serious physical harm, as described by Welfare and Institutions Code section 300, subdivision (b)(1).[1] We consider whether there was substantial evidence to support the juvenile court's jurisdictional finding.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Mother's Arrest for Driving Under the Influence and Initial Department Investigation

         At about 2:30 a.m. on July 27, 2015, a California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer observed Mother driving 83 miles per hour on Highway 60. The officer initiated a traffic stop, and after approaching the vehicle, noticed M.R. sleeping across two seats in the backseat of the car unrestrained by a seat belt. J.R. was seated in a car seat, but only the top clips were attached and the bottom belt was unsecured. Smelling a strong odor of alcohol emanating from the vehicle, the officer asked Mother to exit the car. When Mother did so, “she was unsteady on her feet and had to lean against [her car] to maintain her balance.”

         The CHP officer asked Mother if she had consumed any alcoholic beverages and Mother initially said “no.” After the officer told Mother he could smell the odor of alcohol, she admitted she had “one drink earlier in the evening, ” and later during the encounter, she told the officer she had two Blue Moon beers at her grandparents' house. When the officer asked Mother to perform certain field sobriety tests, she failed to perform adequately in several respects. Breath tests administered by the officer revealed Mother's blood alcohol content was.14 percent. The officer arrested Mother for driving under the influence of alcohol and released the children to Father.

         About a week later, the arresting officer notified the Department of Mother's arrest. Department social workers thereafter interviewed Mother and Father and further investigated the family's history and the children's welfare.[2]

         According to the first Department report prepared after Mother's arrest, Mother told a social worker the arrest had been “an honest mistake.” Mother said she had been drinking because her grandfather had recently passed away; she said she and Father were at her mother's house first for a family gathering and they then went to a friend's house where they started drinking. Mother stated she recognized her mistake and denied having a habit of drinking or getting drunk. In regards to the children being unrestrained (or improperly restrained) in car seats on the night she was arrested, Mother claimed the children often unbuckle their own car seat belts. In this first interview, Mother told the social worker she would cooperate fully with the Department and in receiving services to avoid getting her children removed from her care.

         The same Department report also recounted Father's interview statements. He “denied any abuse or neglect to the children and denied any domestic violence, substance abuse, or mental health issues.” Father admitted he and Mother were drinking on the night of the arrest, and he said he let Mother drive because he thought Mother drank less than he did. Father likewise said he and Mother would cooperate with the Department so they would not lose their children.

         In investigating the parents' history, the Department obtained a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department incident report detailing an altercation between the parents less than four years earlier, in January 2012. As summarized by the Department (and in some contrast to Father's interview statement), the incident report stated “the parents had an argument and father hit mother twice in the face with a closed fist. [A]lcohol was involved during this incident and that the parents were at a friends' house when the incident happened. At the time of the incident[, M.R.] was seven months old, but a DCFS referral was not called in.”

         B. Initiation of Proceedings in the Juvenile Court, and Further Department Investigation

         On September 4, 2015, the Department filed a “non-detained” petition alleging the juvenile court had jurisdiction of the children under section 300, subdivision (b)(1). Count b-1 of the petition alleged: “On 07/27/2015, the children, [M.R.] and [J.R.'s] mother... placed the children in a detrimental and endangering situation by driving a vehicle in excess of eighty miles per hour, while under the influence of alcohol, while the children were passengers in the vehicle. The children's father... failed to protect the children when the father knew of the mother's alcohol intake and allowed the mother to drive the children while under the influence of alcohol.... Such a detrimental and endangering situation established for the children by the mother and ...


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