In re. Autumn H. is a keystone case for termination of parental rights hearings and reinforces the statutory prong that a parental relationship/bond must be present and beneficial to the child.
Many parents who are facing a termination of parental rights hearing ask for the court to do a bonding study or a proceeding of such nature in a last effort to not have their rights severed. What parents are not aware of is that when looking for a" bond" during a bonding study, the court is looking for more than just a loving relationship between the parent and the child. The court is looking to see if that parent and child have a loving bond in which the parent cares for the child and demonstrates a strong "parental role" for said child. The parents may say my child and I have a strong bond, but when DCFS performs its social study, it may find otherwise.
In re. Autumn H . took place in 1994. In this case the father was contesting an order terminating his parental rights pursuant to Welf and Inst Code § 366.26. He contested on the grounds of § 366.26 (c) (1) (a) that the definition of "benefit" is unconstitutionally vague. The father also contends that a bond does exist between him and his child. The appellate court affirmed the trial court's order and provides in its brief, a more narrow definition of "benefit".
The father's children were taken into protective custody when he was alleged to have kicked his son and hit his daughter Autumn. The father had had one previous dependency case a year ago. The children were placed with relatives and foster homes. The father was ordered to drug counseling, DV classes, and parenting classes as part of his case plan.
The father was not able to participate in his services for several months due to his incarceration. Once released, he enrolled in his drug and alcohol classes. He began weekly supervised visits with his children. However, the social worker reported that the father had very limited understanding of his children's emotional and physical needs. The social worker reporter reported that he made progress but it was enough to sustain reunification. The social worker added that he dropped out of his mandated classes. The social worker opined that the father was not serious about reunification. When asked, the case worker reported that "[father] said he did not want to pursue reunification with Autumn because she was bonded with her foster family and would suffer if her placement were changed."
The case worker added that the agency had provided a step by step process for the father to move to expand his visitations, but reported that the father made no effort to expand his visits. The father stayed with his weekly visits. Social worker opined that Autumn was benefitting from her living situation. She showed proper development with walking, intense curiosity in her environment, and expanding vocabulary. The worker opined that the minor would benefit from the continuing stability that the foster home provided for her.
The court set a 366.26 hearing. During the hearing, the minor's CASA opined that she had observed the visits and witnessed the father lack of discipline. The CASA testified that he allowed her to go wherever she wanted even if it was dangerous. In one year he had only visited her 22 times. The CASA testified that she did not think there was a strong bond between father and child. The CASA classified the visits as ones with a "family friend".
The social worker testified stating he only visited her half of the time even though more visits were offered. The father did not ask about the minor and would address his personal issues with the foster parent. The foster parent voiced her intent to adopt Autumn.
Another social worker testified that she did not think that the father and Autumn had a beneficial parental relationship but rather one akin to a "friendly visitor". The worker opined that he did not have the capacity to learn how to be a parent.
The instant court terminated the father's rights over a finding by clear and convincing evidence that the father lacked of a beneficial parental/child bond with Autumn. The court found that it would not be a detriment to Autumn to severe the father's parental rights to his minor. The father filed a timely appeal.
The law mandates that if a parent chooses to appeal termination of parental rights, the burden of proof shifts to them to demonstrate that exceptional circumstances exist. Since compliance with the case plan is not an issue at a .26 hearing, the court relies on a two prong test for determining whether a parent's rights should be terminated. Since the sibling exception is rarely used, this will focus on the prong of parental/ child bond.
The prong of parental/child bond can be summarized by the legislature:
The four situations to forego adoption and retain parental rights are where the court finds that termination would be detrimental to the minor due to one of the following circumstances:
“(A) The parents or guardians have maintained regular visitation and contact with the minor and the minor would benefit from continuing the relationship.
“(B) A minor 12 years of age or older objects to termination of parental rights.
“(C) The child is placed in a residential treatment facility, adoption is unlikely or undesirable, and continuation of parental rights will not prevent finding the child a permanent family placement if the parents cannot resume custody when residential care is no longer needed.
“(D) The minor is living with a relative or foster parent who is unable or unwilling to adopt the minor because of exceptional circumstances, which do not include an unwillingness to accept legal responsibility for the minor, but who is willing and capable of providing the minor with a stable and permanent environment and the removal of the minor from the physical custody of his or her relative or foster parent would be detrimental to the emotional well-being of the minor.” (§ 366.26, subd. (c)(1).)
The court goes on to address vagueness:
“As a matter of due process, a law is void on its face if it is so vague that persons ‘of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application."
In relation to dependency the court addresses the issue of vagueness and defines a beneficial relationship as one where the well being of the child is promoted in the current relationship and outweighs the benefit the child would receive in another living situation. The court emphasizes that in a relationship if severing the bond would disrupt the child's substantial positive emotional attachment to that parental figure, then adoption is overruled.
Daily visits by nature will bestow some beneficial relationship to the child, but this bond alone is not enough. The court is looking for a bond where the parent and the child have a meaningful and appropriate bond. When parents ask for bonding studies, sometimes the bonding study may show a relationship or a bond, but not an appropriate one and that bonding study may be used against the parent.
The father contested that the definition of benefit was too vague and allowed the trial judge too much discretion in making a ruling. He argued that such a limited definition opened the doors to arbitrary and capricious decisions.
The court contends that the definition is not too vague and when placed in context of the testimony, the trial court did not err in its decision. When using this in the context of the case, the court draws from the testimony of the social workers. The social workers discussed the relationship as one between friends. The father lacked boundaries with his daughter. Even though the father knew that he should have implemented those boundaries, he was unable to do so as he wanted to preserve the bond and have fun with his daughter. The social workers opined that because of all of the testimony, the father's relationship with the minor did not pose as a beneficial one where the proper parent/ child dynamics were in place. As a result, the court found that the father did not meet his burden of proof and terminated parental rights freeing the child for adoption.
This case does beg some interesting points as to whether the court's definition of "beneficial " was substantial enough. The court relies on more common sense that dictates that a parental "bond" is clearly in the eyes of the public one where the parent is able to care for and direct their child in ways that would positively support the child's development. However, the court did not lay out specific guidelines to what may be considered proof of "beneficial" bonding. The court states that it is unnecessary and a waste of time. This appears that it is a more common sense knowledge and does not need clarification. Yet this does invite some speculation as the judge may be the one to interpret the quality of negative bonding there is. During visitation where notes are being recorded, the child may interact differently due to the pressure and foreignness of being in a small supervised setting. The parent may seem confused and unsure of how to parent as they are now under the scrutiny of the agency, and this may carry over in their parenting technique. Although the court does look at the larger picture judges are human after all and may give weight to certain evidence over other when making their ruling. Although the father in this case was a pretty clear picture of someone who did not know how to effectively parent, there are always exceptions. Add in the fact that the standard of proof is lower than criminal cases as a means to safeguard the child's best interest, and the decision becomes more complicated. Finally, with the culture of dependency court, with judges ruling on the overly safe side, some parents may find that their rights are terminated over not clearly defined "beneficial bond". To summarize in most cases, yes, it is clear the difference between a quality parental bond and one that lacks structure; however, there are those few cases where it may be very difficult to make a call. But in those cases that is why we have appellate judges. If there are more updates to in re. Autumn H they will be posted later.
Appellant father sought review of a decision of the Superior Court of San Diego County (California), which, at the request of respondent San Diego County Department of Social Services, changed the permanent plan of appellant's dependent daughter from long-term foster care to adoption and terminated appellant's parental rights under Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 366.26.
Appellant father's children were taken into protective custody after appellant kicked one of them, causing injuries. The children were then declared dependents of the trial court for the second time and were placed with their grandparents or in foster homes. Appellant was incarcerated during most of the first six months of reunification and upon release entered a residential alcohol rehabilitation facility. He visited the children on a weekly basis. The trial court continued appellant's reunification services for a time, but ultimately found that the youngest daughter was adoptable, severed appellant's parental rights, and referred the daughter for adoptive placement. Appellant sought review of the decision. The court affirmed the trial court's order. The court held that the statutory exception to placement for adoption where a benefit from continuing the parent/child relationship was found, under Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 366.26(c)(1)(A), was clear and not violative of appellant's right to due process and that substantial evidence supported the order terminating appellant's parental rights and freeing the daughter for adoption.
The court affirmed the trial court's order terminating appellant father's parental rights and changing his daughter's permanent plan from long-term foster care to adoption because substantial evidence supported the order and because a statutory exception providing that adoptive placement be foregone where there was a benefit to the child from continuing the parent/child relationship was not unconstitutionally vague.
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