It’s 3:30 on a Friday afternoon at the Alfred J. McCourtney Juvenile Justice Center in Lancaster, California, when the last case of the day begins. This is the dependency courtroom that serves the Antelope Valley, a remote high-desert community that has been marked by a string of child fatalities in recent years, including 4-year Noah Cuatro last month.
On this Friday in May, Commissioner Steven Ipson has got a calendar filled with the week’s thorniest cases, including several where custody disputes feature as part of the proceedings.
In this case, the mother and father keep their distance from each other when Ipson calls their names and they enter the courtroom late in the day. Currently separated, each parent sits at opposite ends of a bench before the commissioner, flanked by a defense lawyer.
At stake today is whether Mom’s erratic anger issues and frequent use of marijuana means that she will lose custody of her kids.
The county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has already been involved with the family before. Last year, she drove erratically with her two kids in the car, gunning the motor and then braking suddenly, pushing the car over the curb. An allegation of abuse was substantiated. Now, after another family crisis and fears about her aggressive behavior, the mother is again facing serious concerns from the county.
“The mother remains unstable and a risk to endanger the children,” said the lawyer for Los Angeles County and DCFS. The county is particularly concerned about her marijuana use.
“Mother says she had just used a couple days ago in an interview … There’s a clear nexus between her aggression and her use,” the lawyer said.
When it comes time for mom’s lawyer to respond, he notes that she has made strides since then, completing an outpatient drug and alcohol treatment program, anger management classes and a parenting education program.
The mother continues to smoke marijuana, he said, but the case against her should be dismissed. He argues that her marijuana use should have no bearing on the case, given the age of the children and the mom’s behavior.
When the children go into the garage and the mother hurries to put something away, “this tells us that mother is trying not to expose her children,” the lawyer explains. There is no evidence the children have suffered as a result of mom’s pot habit, he argues.
“While the mother has admitted to using marijuana recently, it is very important to note that the children are 10 and 15 years old,” the mother’s attorney said. “The case of in re: Rebecca C. made clear when children are not at a tender age to sustain jurisdiction, there has to be proof that the substance abuse has actually harmed the children or creates a substantial risk of serious harm. Here we have no proof of either of those things. There are no confirmed reports of harms to the children’s emotional or physical health because of mom’s substance abuse.”
The case cited by the mother’s lawyer, re: Rebecca C, is a 2014 decision in appellate court that has changed some of the terms of how the county can remove children when drugs are involved.
Based on a case that also occurred in L.A. County, an attorney for the mother appealed a dependency court’s ruling that it could remove Rebecca, the mother’s child, based on the woman’s previous use of substances like methamphetamines and marijuana. The court had concluded that a history of drug use made the mother unable to provide her teenage daughter with appropriate care and supervision — that it placed Rebecca at “at risk of physical harm.”
While the appellate court acknowledged the mom’s drug issue, it ruled that the mother’s substance use had not caused a substantial risk of harm to the daughter. The appellate court agreed with the defense’s argument that “mere usage of drugs is not a basis for the assertion of dependency [court] jurisdiction,” citing the mother’s ability to take care of her 13-year-old daughter without abuse, including remembering regular medical and dental check-ups.
The Rebecca C. ruling has had repercussions in a state like California, which legalized recreational marijuana use by a healthy margin in a ballot measure in 2016. Drug use is prevalent in Los Angeles County’s child welfare system – 59 percent of all open DCFS cases involved substance abuse issues, according to the agency.
While recreational marijuana became legal in 2016, DCFS has not formally changed its policy about the drug’s relevance to child welfare cases:
“The use of legal or illegal marijuana should be handled in the same manner as with any substance. Attention should be given as to how the use of the drug affects a parent/caregiver’s ability to care for the child, and how their use correlates to the harm or substantial risk of harm to the child.”
But in the Antelope Valley courtroom, the effort to prevent the mother from losing custody of her children is still shaky.
The children’s counsel notes that the teenage daughter describes their relationship as “abusive.” And the mother’s alleged tendencies to drive dangerously have continued, according to the children’s attorney.
“She gets pissed off and goes on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride with whoever is in the car,” the lawyer said, referencing a popular Disneyland attraction. “That’s clearly an issue.”
But all the parties are up against a common foe. It’s now nearly 5 p.m. and justice must wind down for the week. Commissioner Ipson will have to wait until the following day to sort out this case.
This story is a part of a Chronicle series called “Hearings,” where our reporters and guest contributors provide an inside look at how child welfare courts function.
In about half the states in the country, child welfare proceedings are closed to the public and media – despite the fact that they are places where children enter foster care; where families are ripped apart, sometimes put back together and otherwise – through adoption – made anew.
If you are a judge, parent, foster youth, attorney or an advocate for families … we want to hear from you. Share a story from a recent dependency court experience that you believe speaks to a problem or a success story.
Anonymity may be granted depending on the nature of your contribution. Our intent with this – and all Chronicle projects – is to ethically cover the child welfare system, which often means protecting the names and identities of children and families caught up in it.