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Court backs L.A. County in custody case after child's traffic death

When a child is transported without a car seat and dies, the siblings may be removed from the home by child welfare authorities, the California Supreme Court rules in a Los Angeles County case.

July 06, 2012|By Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • Joe Imel, Associated Press
Joe Imel, Associated Press (kzwf2tnc20120706024226/600 )

Parents who transport a youngster without a car seat and lose the child in a fatal traffic accident may have their surviving children removed by social welfare authorities, the California Supreme Court decided unanimously Thursday.

The state high court ruled in favor of Los Angeles County social workers who placed two young boys in foster care after their 18-month-old sister, held on the lap of an aunt, was killed when a driver ran a stop sign and plowed into the car their father was driving.

The ruling permits counties to remove children in such cases even if the child's death was not caused by criminal negligence or abuse. Social welfare agencies also are not required to show that the fatal conduct posed a risk to the surviving children, the court said.

Lawyers for Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services said Thursday's decision would make it much easier to win legal control over children who have lost a sibling because of a parent's lack of care. "It's a big case for us, and it is a big case for the child welfare community," said James M. Owens, assistant county counsel.

But Christopher Blake, an attorney for the father in the case, complained that the ruling was overly broad and would encourage social workers to wrest away control of children simply because they were transported without a car seat or seat belt.

"It will make it too easy for children to be removed from their parents when their parents make a tragic mistake," Blake said.

The case was brought by the father, identified as William C., after his two young sons were put in foster care following the death of his daughter.

William and his three children lived in South Los Angeles with his mother and extended family. He had been separated from the children's cognitively impaired mother.

William was en route to a hospital in June 2009 after his daughter, Valerie, fell off a bed and injured her arm, according to court records. 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. He suffered "extreme remorse" after the accident, the court said.

County social workers received a report a week later that Valerie's siblings, Ethan, 3, and Jesus, 8 months old, were being neglected.

The county investigated and determined that the children lived in a household with about 20 people. They also found evidence of unsanitary conditions and reported that the children were dirty and appeared unsupervised. Ethan was suffering from severe developmental delays and had rotten teeth that required extraction, according to the court.

In removing the boys, the county invoked a law that says children may be taken from their parents if negligence has caused a child's death. William contended that the law should apply only if the negligent act was criminal and posed a risk to the surviving children.

But the court said a "breach of ordinary care" was enough to trigger government intervention.

"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… even if the parent's lethal carelessness cannot necessarily be characterized as sufficiently 'gross,' reckless, or culpable to be labeled 'criminal,' " Justice Marvin R. Baxter wrote for the court.

The court said social welfare agencies were not required to show a connection between a child's death and potential harm to the surviving children. A parent's responsibility for a death "inherently" poses concerns for the safety of other children, it said.

Blake, William's attorney, said the ruling would affect other parents more than William. After more than a year in foster care, his children were returned to him after he took several parenting courses.

Kim Nemoy, principal deputy county counsel, said the county had sympathy for the grief-stricken father and worked to ensure he would be able to regain custody once his parenting skills improved.

"This was a family that was greatly in need of social services," she said.

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maura.dolan@latimes.com

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