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Losing a child is the most painful event that a parent could ever endure, but the California Supreme Court will allow social services to match a loss of life with a loss of custody when a parent's negligence resulted in a child's death.
In In Re Ethan C., et al, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services can remove surviving children from a parent's home when the parent's negligence was the superseding cause in another child's death, even if the parent was not found criminally negligent in the death.
The California Welfare and Institutions Code provides that, under certain circumstances, a child may deemed a dependent of the juvenile court if the court finds by a preponderance of evidence that the 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."
In this case, William, a father, was en route to a hospital after his daughter, Valerie, fell off a bed and injured her arm. William said he had loaned his car, which contained a car seat, to someone else, and drove another vehicle to the hospital with the injured daughter on her aunt's lap. Valerie was killed when a driver ran a stop sign and plowed into the car William was driving, reports the Los Angeles Times.
Social workers received a report a week later that Valerie's brothers, Ethan, 3, and Jesus, 8 months old, were being neglected. Upon investigating the claim, they found that the children lived in unsanitary conditions, appeared dirty and unsupervised, and required medical treatment. They removed boys from William's home.
William tried to regain custody of his sons, claiming that the dependent of the court law should apply only if the negligent act was criminal and posed a risk to the surviving children, reports the Los Angeles Times.
The California Supreme Court disagreed.
Writing for the court, Judge Marvin Baxter noted, "When a parent's or guardian's negligence has led to the tragedy of a child's death, the dependency court should have the power to intervene."
Because a parent's or guardian's neglectful or abusive responsibility for a child fatality inherently raises concerns for the safety of other children under the parent's care, the California Supreme Court ruled that local officials can intervene to remove a negligent parent's surviving children without the need for separate evidence or findings regarding a current risk of such harm.