A San Diego father appealed a superior court ruling in a juvenile dependency case that denied him reunification with his two sons. The Fourth District Court of Appeals reviewed In re A.G., et al and affirmed the superior court's ruling. It held that California law required the superior court, given the circumstances of the case, to deny services to the father, and that the father failed to meet his burden of proof that reunification would be in his sons' best interests.
The appellant, Hugo G., is the presumed father of four children, two sons and two daughters. The San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency (HHS) filed dependency petitions for all four children in October 2011. At that time, the two sons were eight and three years old, and the daughters were eleven years and nine months old, respectively. The dependency petition alleged that Hugo sexually abused the older daughter, A.G., in January 2010. HHS asserted jurisdiction over the other three children on the grounds that a sibling had been abused.
An amended petition, filed by HHS in November 2011, alleged that Hugo physically abused A.G. and the two sons beginning in September 2010. The court denied Hugo's request for reunification services, including a child abuse class, but ordered them for the children's mother. Hugo appealed the superior court's denial of reunification services only as to the two sons.
California law states that parents are entitled to reunification services in dependency cases, except in circumstances where reunification would not be in a child’s “best interest.” The “best interest” standard applies to most decisions in cases involving children, and trial courts have wide discretion to assess what those interests are. The trial court in Hugo’s case applied two exceptions to a parent’s entitlement to reunification services found in Section 361.5 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code. In A.G.’s case, it found that “severe sexual abuse” had occurred. As for the two sons and the infant daughter, it found that they were siblings of a child who became a dependent due to “severe sexual abuse,” and the circumstances that led to the sibling’s dependency posed a threat to the children’s well-being.
Once a court determines that reunification is not in a child’s best interest, the presumption of parental reunification is replaced by a presumption that reunification is not worth the use of public resources. The burden of proof shifts to the parent to show that reunification is in a child’s best interest. Hugo argued that the provision of Section 361.5 cited by the superior court was not applicable to his sons, because the superior court found that they were at no risk of sexual abuse from him. The appellate court considered the circumstances of the alleged sexual abuse and concluded that reunification would still harm the boys by placing them in a “dysfunctional and potentially harmful environment.” It therefore affirmed the superior court’s ruling.
Thomas Huguenor is a divorce and child custody lawyer certified by the State of California. For more than 35 years, he has represented people in San Diego finding their way through the California divorce process. Contact us today online or at (858) 458-9500 to schedule a free and confidential consultation.
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