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In re R.T.

Supreme Court of California

July 20, 2017

In Re R.T., a Person Coming Under the Juvenile Court Law.
v.
LISA E., Defendant and Appellant. LOS ANGELES COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILY SERVICES, Plaintiff and Respondent,

         Superior Court, Los Angeles County No. DK03719, Marguerite D. Downing Judge

          Nancy Rabin Brucker, under appointment by the Supreme Court, for Defendant and Appellant.

          Mark J. Saladino, County Counsel, Mary C. Wickham, Interim County Counsel, Dawyn R. Harrison, Assistant County Counsel, William D. Thetford, Principal Deputy County Counsel, and Stephen D. Watson, Deputy County Counsel, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

          No appearance for Minor.

          Chin, J.

         The first clause of Welfare and Institutions Code section 300, subdivision (b)(1) (section 300(b)(1))[1] authorizes a juvenile court to exercise dependency jurisdiction over a child if “[t]he child has suffered, or there is a substantial risk that the child will suffer, serious physical harm or illness, as a result of the failure or inability of his or her parent or guardian to adequately supervise or protect the child....” (Italics added.) We granted review to resolve a split of authority on the following issue: Does section 300(b)(1) require a finding that a parent was neglectful or in some way to blame for the “failure or inability” to adequately supervise or protect his or her child?

         Relying on the text and purpose of section 300(b)(1)'s first clause, the Court of Appeal here concluded that it does not require such a finding. However, the Court of Appeal in In re Precious D. (2010) 189 Cal.App.4th 1251 (Precious D.), which dealt with markedly similar facts, reached a contrary conclusion. It held that dependency jurisdiction under section 300(b)(1) can only be authorized after a finding that a parent's inability to protect her incorrigible child is due to “parental unfitness or neglectful conduct.” (Precious D., at p. 1259.) Focusing on the dependency process as a whole, the Precious D. Court of Appeal reasoned that because these proceedings may reach a point where parental rights are ultimately terminated, a finding of “parental culpability” is required when dependency jurisdiction is initially imposed to comport with federal due process considerations. (Id. at p. 1261 [“parental rights would be terminated and the family unit destroyed without any finding of unfitness or neglectful conduct”]; see In re James R. (2009) 176 Cal.App.4th 129, 135, quoting In re Rocco M. (1991) 4th 814');">1 Cal.App.4th 814, 820 (Rocco M.) [delineating three elements to support dependency jurisdiction under § 300(b)(1)].)

         For reasons that follow, we agree with the Court of Appeal here that the first clause of section 300(b)(1) authorizes dependency jurisdiction without a finding that a parent is at fault or blameworthy for her failure or inability to supervise or protect her child. We disapprove In re Precious D., supra, 4th 1251');">189 Cal.App.4th 1251, to the extent that it is inconsistent with the views expressed in this opinion. (See post, at p. 20, fn. 6.)

         Factual and Procedural Background

         The facts of the case are largely undisputed. Lisa E. (mother) gave birth to daughter R.T. in 1996. At age 14, R.T. began running away from home for days at a time and not attending school. R.T. falsely reported that mother had abused her. At age 15, R.T. gave birth to a daughter (who became a dependent of the court) and had another child a few years later. Mother tried unsuccessfully to supervise and protect R.T., and sought support from the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (Department) and law enforcement. She later arranged for R.T. to live with her parents, R.T.'s maternal grandparents, because R.T.'s grandfather used to work with troubled youth and R.T.'s history of falsely reporting mother's abuse made it difficult for mother to discipline her. R.T. struggled with “anger management issues, ” as it was reported she threw a chair at her maternal grandfather.

         On February 21, 2014, the Department filed a petition to declare then 17-year-old R.T. a dependent of the juvenile court on the ground that she faced a “substantial risk [of]... serious physical harm or illness, as a result of the failure or inability of [mother] to adequately supervise or protect” her. (§ 300(b)(1), first clause.) The juvenile court asserted jurisdiction over R.T., reasoning that “the mother cannot control [R.T.] so she has given her off to grandparents and they can't control her either.” The court issued a dispositional order authorizing the Department to place R.T. elsewhere while reunification services were provided, and ultimately placed R.T. back with her grandparents. Mother appealed, and the Court of Appeal affirmed the jurisdictional and dispositional orders of the juvenile court.

         We granted review.

         Discussion

         A. Background

         We begin with a brief overview of the dependency and delinquency statutory schemes governing a juvenile court's jurisdiction over a child. (§§ 300 [dependency jurisdiction], 601, 602 [delinquency jurisdiction].) “Delinquency courts follow a system parallel to that used in dependency courts for removing a child from the family home. The dependency and delinquency systems serve overlapping but slightly different aims, however. Whereas the dependency system is geared toward protection of a child victimized by parental abuse or neglect, the delinquency system enforces accountability for the child's own wrongdoing, both to rehabilitate the child and to protect the public.” (In re W.B. (2012) 4th 30');">55 Cal.4th 30, 46; see In re Marilyn H. (1993) 4th 295');">5 Cal.4th 295, 307 [objective of dependency scheme].)

         Under the delinquency scheme, section 601, subdivision (a), confers juvenile court jurisdiction based on a child's so-called “status offenses, ” i.e., refusing to obey orders of a parent or guardian, being beyond parental control, violating age-based curfew ordinances, or being truant or disobedient in school. (In re W.B., supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 42.)2" name="FN2" id= "FN2">[2] Under the dependency scheme, a child may come within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court based on any of the various grounds in section 300. (§ 300, subds. (a)-(j); see Cynthia D. v. Superior Court (1993) 4th 242');">5 Cal.4th 242, 247 (Cynthia D.) [discussing procedural steps to bring child within juvenile court's jurisdiction for dependency proceedings].) “Generally speaking, Section 300 defines jurisdiction in terms of serious harm suffered by a child or the substantial risk of such serious harm to a child. Although the harm or risk of harm to the child must generally be the result of an act, omission or inability of one of the parents or guardians, the central focus of dependency jurisdiction is clearly on the child rather than the parent.” (Seiser & Kumli, Cal. Juvenile Courts Practice and Procedure (2017 ed.) § 2.14, p. 2-40.)

         B. Section 300(b)(1)

         Subdivision (b) of section 300, sometimes referred to as the “failure to protect” provision, is divided into subdivision (b)(1) and (b)(2). (See Judicial Council form, JV-121 (rev. July 1, 2016).) Subdivision (b)(1) itself further sets out four separate grounds for dependency jurisdiction - the first clause of section 300, subdivision (b)(1) is at issue here.[3] It authorizes dependency jurisdiction if a child “has suffered, or there is a substantial risk that the child will suffer, serious physical harm or illness, as a result of the failure or inability of his or her parent or guardian to adequately supervise or protect the child.” (§ 300(b)(1), italics added.) The question is, must a parent4" name="FN4" id="FN4">[4] in some way be blameworthy for being unable to supervise or protect her child? Or does the parent's failure or inability alone support a juvenile court's assertion of dependency jurisdiction under section 300(b)(1)?

         In reviewing this question of statutory construction de novo, we begin with several guiding principles. We start with the statute's words, which are the most reliable indicator of legislative intent. (John v. Superior Court (2016) 4th 91');">63 Cal.4th 91, 95.) “We interpret relevant terms in light of their ordinary meaning, while also taking account of any related provisions and the overall structure of the statutory scheme to determine what interpretation best advances the Legislature's underlying purpose.” (Los Angeles County Bd. of Supervisors v. Superior Court (2016) 2 Cal.5th 282');">2 Cal.5th 282, 293; see Winn v. Pioneer Medical Group, Inc. (2016) 4th 148');">63 Cal.4th 148, 155-156.) “When language is included in one portion of a statute, its omission from a different portion addressing a similar subject suggests that the omission was purposeful.” (In re Ethan C. (2012) 4 Cal.4th 610');">54 Cal.4th 610, 638 [reviewing § 300, subd. (f)].)

         Section 300 does not define either “failure” or “inability, ” nor does the text of section 300(b)(1) on its face reveal whether a parent must in some way be to blame for this “failure or inability.” “Although not binding, it can be useful to refer to the dictionary definition of a word in attempting to ascertain the meaning of statutory language.” (In re Marriage of Davis (2015) 4th 846');">61 Cal.4th 846, 852, fn. 1.) For example, in a nondependency case, the Court of Appeal explained that “ ‘[f]ailure' means ‘omission of performance of an action or task; esp: neglect of an assigned, expected, or appropriate action'; ‘inability' means ‘the quality or state of being unable: lack of ability: lack of sufficient power, strength, resources, or capacity.' (Webster's Third New Internat. Dict. (1966) pp. 815, 1139.)” (Brown v. Municipal Court (1978) 86 Cal.App.3d 357, 365 [DUI-related statute, Veh. Code, former § 13354, ...


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