SAN FRANCISCO — A California woman at the center of a contentious legal battle over custody of her out-of-control daughter tried her best to take care of the teen.
She looked for the girl each time she ran away from home, sent her to live with her grandparents, and called police and a child welfare agency for help, court records say. But instead of moving to find the 17-year-old delinquent, a legal determination that she did something wrong, officials said her mom could not protect her and took her away.
State law gives officials power to seek custody of children whose parents are unable to keep them safe. The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the law does not require the parent to be abusive, neglectful or otherwise to blame. If children face substantial danger, the state can take custody of them even if parents are doing their best to protect them, the high court said.
The decision raised questions about the best way to deal with wayward children.
A finding that a parent is inadequate, “even when the parent is not at fault, can carry a painful stigma,” Associate Justice Goodwin Liu acknowledged.
Michael Wald, an expert in children’s rights and welfare at Stanford Law School, said parents are often seen as “blameworthy” when their kids are taken away under the law in question.
It is often invoked in cases where a parent is abusing or neglecting a child. It can also apply when a parent becomes homeless or is mentally incapacitated, Wald said.
But another option for wayward kids, labeling them delinquent, can stigmatize and punish them for mental health or behavioral health problems that are beyond their control, experts say.
In the case before the court, the mother identified only as Lisa E. tried to help her daughter, though the girl repeatedly ran away from home and skipped school. She had a child at 15 and became pregnant again at 17.
The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services filed a petition in 2014 to declare the then-17-year-old a dependent of the juvenile court. The court ordered the girl taken from her mother. She was placed in a shelter before being returned to her grandparents, where her mother had previously sent her.
Child welfare officials were told to provide services to try to reunite the girl with her mother.
The mother argued that the county didn’t need to take her child because she had provided the best care possible and had a plan for her upbringing.
Nancy Brucker, an attorney for the mom, said she could not discuss the case because juvenile proceedings are confidential.
The state also can assume control of wayward children under delinquency laws that cover crimes as well as less serious behavior such as refusing to obey their parents or skipping school. The mom argued that was the proper way to address her daughter.
The national trend is to avoid sending kids into the delinquency system, said Stephen Watson, deputy counsel for Los Angeles County who represented the child welfare department before the state high court.
A delinquency finding “may follow the minor throughout his or her life,” Associate Justice Ming Chin said in the ruling.
“Taking the long view of this issue, and considering what valuable services the dependency system has to offer in this situation, we decline to adopt an approach that would automatically place an incorrigible child in the delinquency system pipeline,” he said.
Patrick Gardner, president of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Young Minds Advocacy, said that if parents are not contributing to the child’s problems, the best solution is to keep kids in their homes and ensure they get the services they need.
“It’s a terrible policy to say the only way you can take care of your child is to turn your child over to the state,” he said.