The state can take wayward children away from their parents even when they are doing their best to control their kids and the kids aren't delinquents, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
A unanimous court said it doesn't matter whether parents are neglectful or in some way to blame for failing to protect their children. If children face substantial risk of harm, the state can assume custody of them, the high court said.
The ruling concerns a state law that allows a court to assume control of children if they have suffered or are at substantial risk of suffering serious physical harm or illness as a result of the failure or inability of their parents to adequately supervise or protect them.
The law is often invoked in cases where a parent is abusing or neglecting a child. It can also apply to cases in which a parent becomes homeless or is mentally incapacitated, said Michael Wald, an expert in child welfare law at Stanford Law School.
The case the court ruled on Thursday involved none of those conditions. The mother — a Los Angeles County woman identified only as Lisa E. — tried to supervise and protect her teenage daughter, looking for her each time she left home, sending her to live with her grandparents, and calling police and the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services for help, according to court documents.
The girl repeatedly ran away from home, had a child at the age of 15, and skipped school.
In 2014, the county department filed a petition to declare the then-17-year-old girl a dependent of the juvenile court. The court granted the petition and authorized the department to place the girl elsewhere.
News from across California
Supreme Court Associate Justice Ming Chin said in Thursday's ruling that the girl was incorrigible, and the court did not disagree with her mother's contention that she tried everything she could to control the girl and was not blame for her behavior.
But Chin said the state law at issue did not require a finding of fault on the mother's part, just a determination that she was unable to keep the girl from harm.
An email to an attorney for the mother was not immediately returned.
The mother had argued that the court should have deemed her daughter at fault under delinquency laws that also give the state authority to take custody of children. The delinquency system covers crimes, but also less serious behavior such as refusing to obey parents' orders or skipping school.