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Proof of Criminal Neglect Is Not Necessary For An Initial Adjudication of Dependency

images-thumb-275x183-23637.jpgIn In re Ethan C. (2012) 54 Cal. 4th 610, 143 Cal. Rptr. 3d 565 , the California Supreme Court held that Welfare & Institutions Code section 300(f), which allows an initial adjudication of dependency if the child's parent caused the death of another child through neglect, does not require proof of criminal neglect. Here, the father's failure to strap his infant into a car safety seat, resulting in her death in a car accident, was a sufficient reason for adjudicating his other children dependent.

Cal Wel & Inst Code § 300(f) provides that any child whose parent or guardian caused the death of another child through abuse or neglect is within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court which may adjudge that person to be a dependent child of the court.

As a matter of background, a father decided that he needed to transport his 18 month old daughter Valerie to the hospital so that she could be examined to determine the nature of an injury to her arm. The father, William, borrowed a car that did not have a child safety seat, and Valerie rode on an adult's lap. On the way to the hospital, another car collided with William's car, killing Valerie. William was not at fault for the accident, but there was evidence that Valerie would not have died had she been secured in a safety seat.

After William lost his children, he argued on appeal that under section 300(f), abuse or neglect leading to a child's death requires criminal negligence, rather than mere ordinary negligence. The Court found that neither the plain language nor the legislative history of the statute supported William's argument that section 300(f) requires criminal neglect. The ordinary meaning of the word ''neglect,'' the Court said, is ''not giving proper attention or care to'' or ''to leave undone or unattended to especially through carelessness.'' Black's Law Dictionary defines neglect as ''[t]he failure to give proper attention, supervision, or necessities, esp. to a child, to such an extent that harm results or is likely to result." None of these definitions, observed the Court, require particularly reckless or blameworthy conduct.

Examining other provisions of section 300, the Court found nothing to indicate a legislative intent that only criminal neglect or abuse could result in a dependency adjudication. Thus, for example, section 300(b) refers to ''the willful or negligent failure'' to protect the child or provide the child with adequate food, shelter or clothing, and section 300(d) allows a child to be adjudicated dependent if the parent failed to protect the child from sexual abuse when the parent ''knew or should have known'' that there was a danger of such abuse.

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Is this the story of a father who became the victim of a rigid statutory scheme or did the court meet the goal of dependency law by looking out for the safety and protection of the children while also serving the children's best interests?

The Law Offices of James V. Sansone offers a full range of family law legal services. We are located in Santa Rosa, California and serve clients throughout Sonoma County, Mendocino County, and Lake County, including Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Cotati, Rohnert Park, Sebastopol, Healdsburg, Sonoma, Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Windsor, Bodega Bay, Ukiah, Willits, Clearlake, Lakeport, and Kelseyville.

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