L. A. Cnty. Dep't of Children & Family Servs. v. Carlos L. (In re Christopher L.)

Citation12 Cal.5th 1063,508 P.3d 776,292 Cal.Rptr.3d 815
Decision Date25 April 2022
Docket NumberS265910
Parties IN RE CHRISTOPHER L., a Person Coming Under the Juvenile Court Law. Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Carlos L., Defendant and Appellant.
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court

12 Cal.5th 1063
508 P.3d 776
292 Cal.Rptr.3d 815

IN RE CHRISTOPHER L., a Person Coming Under the Juvenile Court Law.

Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, Plaintiff and Respondent,
Carlos L., Defendant and Appellant.


Supreme Court of California.

April 25, 2022

Christopher Blake, San Diego, under appointment by the Supreme Court, for Defendant and Appellant.

Mazanec Law, Nicholas J. Mazanec, Sacramento; and Suzanne M. Nicholson for California Appellate Defense Counsel as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Defendant and Appellant.

Mary C. Wickham, Los Angeles, and Rodrigo A. Castro-Silva, County Counsel, Kim Nemoy, Assistant County Counsel, and Sarah Vesecky, Deputy County Counsel, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

Jennifer B. Henning; and Johannah L. Hartley, Deputy County Counsel (Santa Barbara), for the California State Association of Counties as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiff and Respondent.

Opinion of the Court by Liu, J.

12 Cal.5th 1069

California law requires the appointment of counsel for parents whose children are subject to dependency proceedings before the juvenile court. When such parents are incarcerated, the law specifically provides for notice and the opportunity to be present, and prohibits a juvenile court from adjudicating a dependency petition without the presence of both counsel and the incarcerated parent except upon affirmative waiver by the parent. These requirements,

292 Cal.Rptr.3d 818

among others, protect the parent's interest in maintaining the parent-child relationship and the child's interest in having a dependency petition decided on the basis of all factors that bear on the child's well-being.

508 P.3d 779

Here we decide whether it is structural error, and thus reversible per se, for a juvenile court to proceed with a hearing to determine its jurisdiction over a child and disposition of the wardship petition without an incarcerated parent's presence and without appointing counsel for the parent. We hold, as did the Court of Appeal, that while the provisions for presence and appointment of counsel are important protections for both the parent and the child, the juvenile court's failure to comply does not require reversal per se.


Christopher L. was born in December 2017 with a positive toxicology screen for amphetamines. The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (Department) filed a dependency petition pursuant to Welfare and Institutions Code section 300, subdivision (b)(1), alleging that Christopher and his 10-month-old sibling, I.L., were at risk due to their mother's (Mother) history of substance abuse and their respective fathers’ history of drug abuse, as well as Carlos L.’s criminal history. (All undesignated statutory references are to the Welfare and Institutions Code.)

12 Cal.5th 1070

The initial petition listed Carlos L. as I.L.’s alleged father and another man as Christopher's alleged father. But the juvenile court was also presented with documents establishing that Carlos L. was entitled to "presumed father" status with respect to Christopher, which carries with it the right to appointed counsel. ( In re Christopher L. (2020) 56 Cal.App.5th 1172, 1177, 271 Cal.Rptr.3d 147 ( Christopher L. ); see In re T.R. (2005) 132 Cal.App.4th 1202, 1209, 34 Cal.Rptr.3d 215 ; § 317.) Like the Court of Appeal, we refer to Carlos L. as Father.

The petition alleged that Mother's ongoing substance abuse and Father's criminal history and conduct placed the children at risk of serious physical harm. The petition and detention report also alleged that Mother and Father each had other children who were prior dependents of the court and had received permanent placement services. Based on these allegations, the Department indicated it might seek an order denying family reunification services pursuant to section 361.5, subdivision (b)(10) and (11), which allows the court to bypass the usual provision of reunification services, thus paving the way for termination of parental rights.

At the time the children were detained and throughout the course of these proceedings, Father was incarcerated at the Sierra Conservation Center, a fire camp operated by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. As relevant here, the Penal Code provides: "In a proceeding ... brought under Section 300 of the Welfare and Institutions Code, if the proceeding seeks to adjudicate the child of a prisoner a dependent child of the court, the superior court of the county in which the proceeding is pending, or a judge thereof, shall order notice of any court proceeding regarding the proceeding transmitted to the prisoner." ( Pen. Code, § 2625, subd. (b).) "Upon receipt by the court of a statement from the prisoner or the prisoner's attorney indicating the prisoner's desire to be present during the court's proceedings, the court shall issue an order for the temporary removal of the prisoner from the institution, and for the prisoner's production before the court." (Id. , subd. (d).) With exceptions not relevant here, "a petition to adjudge the child of a prisoner a dependent

292 Cal.Rptr.3d 819

child of the court ... may not be adjudicated without the physical presence of the prisoner or the prisoner's attorney, unless the court has before it a knowing waiver of the right of physical presence signed by the prisoner or an affidavit signed by the warden, superintendent, or other person in charge of the institution, or a designated representative stating that the prisoner has, by express statement or action, indicated an intent not to appear at the proceeding." (Ibid. )

Neither parent, nor counsel for either parent, appeared at the detention hearing. The juvenile court found that the Department made a prima facie case for detention, set a combined jurisdiction and disposition hearing for March 2018, and ordered the Department to give notice to the parents.

12 Cal.5th 1071

The Department provided notice to Father of the pending jurisdiction and disposition hearing. He responded: "I wanted to ask if a

508 P.3d 780

court appearance is necessary. In your letter you stated that a court date of 3/9/18 will be set. The reason why I'm asking is that this court date will delay my process on being transferred to a California Fire Camp. If possible I was wondering can this matter be handled over the telephone. If so, it would be very much appreciated if we took that route. I love my kids and I will do anything in my power to be with them. The faster I get to camp, the faster I'll be home. ... Please inform me of my options if a court appearance is needed to handle this matter." Father's letter requested paternity testing for both children but indicated that regardless of the outcome, he would "love them as my own" and consider them "my kids." Father's letter was mentioned in and attached to the report prepared in anticipation of the jurisdiction and disposition hearing.

Neither Father nor counsel for Father appeared at the March 2018 combined jurisdiction and disposition hearing. The juvenile court suggested that the onus was on Father to make himself available and said, contrary to Father's letter, that he had "not made himself available," adding: "[H]e's been noticed, but he's made no contact with [the Department]." After hearing brief argument from the Department and counsel for the minors, the court sustained the petition as to both Father and Mother and denied the parents reunification services for both children. The court found it to be "in the best interest of these children to set a hearing to select a permanent plan of adoption, guardianship, or other planned living arrangements with a relative or foster care provider."

In November 2018, the court appointed counsel for Father. Counsel stated that Father objected to the Department's request to terminate parental rights, and the matter was continued to the next month. In December, Father made his first personal appearance in this case, via telephone. At counsel's request, the court ordered DNA testing to determine Christopher's paternity and continued the proceedings as to Christopher. The court terminated parental rights as to I.L.

Christopher's permanency hearing was held in March 2020. Father was present telephonically and represented by appointed counsel. Counsel objected to the termination of parental rights but presented no evidence and offered no argument. The court terminated Father's parental rights.

As relevant here, Father argued on appeal that he was denied due process of law at the combined jurisdiction and disposition hearing in March 2018 because it was conducted in his absence and without counsel present on his behalf. ( Christopher L. , supra , 56 Cal.App.5th at pp. 1176–1177, 271 Cal.Rptr.3d 147.) The Court

12 Cal.5th 1072

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