Beneficial Parent-Child Relationship Exception (post Caden C.)

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    Introduction

    The purpose of this section is to provide recommendations and guidance with respect to the California Supreme Court’s opinion In re Caden C. (2021) 11 Cal.5th 614.  The failure to accurately address the elements of the beneficial parent-child relationship exception as outlined in Caden C. may cause unnecessary delays and unintended outcomes in juvenile court proceedings that are contrary to the best interest of the child.  

     

    The beneficial parent-child relationship exception defined

    Under certain circumstances a juvenile court may find compelling reasons that termination of parental rights would be detrimental to a child, including when the parents have maintained regular visitation and contact with the child and the child would benefit from continuing the relationship. WIC 366.26(c)(1)(B)(i).

    A parent may present evidence at a contested Welfare and Institutions Code section 366.26 hearing in an effort to establish the existence of a beneficial parent-child relationship (also referred to as “the parental-benefit exception”).  If the court finds  that the exception applies, the court does not terminate parental rights and often orders a permanent plan of guardianship with the current caretaker rather than adoption.

     

    The Agency’s Role: Document Specific Information

    Social workers serve an essential role to the juvenile court by providing unbiased information and professional assessments and recommendations in juvenile dependency proceedings. The agency is required to provide the court with an adoption assessment report for the section 366.26 hearing that provides the information required by law to be in the report, including a review of the amount and nature of any contact between the child and the child’s parent(s) and other members of the child’s extended family since the time of placement. WIC §§361.5(g)(1)(B), 366.21(i)(1)(B), 366.22(c)(1)(B), 366.25(b)(1)(B).   It is important that, throughout the life of a case, social workers document 1) the nature and quality of the interaction between the child and parent, 2) the extent of the emotional attachment the child has to the parent, and 3) the frequency and duration of family time and other parent-child contact during the dependency proceedings. All court reports should include this documented information regarding the parent-child relationship so that in cases where the court is faced with the issue of whether the parent-benefit exception applies, it may look to the documentation provided in the social worker’s reports to aid in that determination. 

    This documentation continues to be necessary even after termination of reunification services as parents will likely continue having court ordered family time, they may continue services on their own, and the law requires an on-going assessment of the role of the parent and quality of the relationship between the parent and child when seeking permanency for the child.

     

    Implications of Caden C. on the Parental-Benefit Exception

    The Caden C. decision clarified the three elements of the parental-benefit exception:

    1. The parent must show they maintained regular visitation and contact with the child, taking into account the extent of visitation permitted.
    2. The parent must show that the child has a substantial, positive, emotional attachment to the parent – the kind of attachment implying that the child would benefit from continuing the relationship.
    3. The parent must show that terminating that attachment would be so detrimental to the child that the detriment would outweigh the benefits of a permanent adoptive home.

    In re Caden C., 11 Cal.5th at pp. 632-633.

     

    Policy and Procedure Recommendations Pursuant to the Essential Elements Outlined in Caden C.

    Considering the implications of the Caden C. opinion, it is important that social workers document the nature of the parent child relationship throughout the life of the case for their court reports.  The social worker is expected to document the following:

    1. The nature and quality of the interaction between the child and parent,
    2. The extent of the emotional attachment the child has to the parent, and
    3. The frequency and duration of visitation and other parent-child contact during the dependency proceedings.

     

    It is recommended that the social worker document the above details in accordance with the standards outlined in the Caden C. decision: 

    Element 1: Consistent and regular visitation and contact between the parent and the child.  CSWs should document in court reports:

    • Whether the parent maintained regular family time and contact with the child to the extent permitted by court orders.
    • Whether the family time and contact continued or developed a substantial, positive, emotional attachment from the child to the parent.
    • The dates and duration the parent engaged in family time with the child, and the dates the parent canceled or failed to appear for visits.

     


    Visitation log recommendations: visit logs will be more important now, especially in cases where the child is over the age of two.  Logs should include meticulously detailed information in a neutral tone. For this reason, county and FFA social workers should monitor visits, not caregivers.  Logs should include:

    • Details about arrival (and if parent arrives on time)
    • Transition behavior by parent and child
    • Departure time (making note if parent asks to end visit early)
    • Parent provision of snacks and diapers, if any
    • Activities and interactions appropriate to the age of the child, such as helping with homework, reading together, practicing numbers and letters, etc.

    Element 2: An assessment of whether there is a substantial, positive, emotional attachment from the child to the parent based on several factors, including but not limited to:

    • The age of the child
    • The portion of the child’s life spent in the parent’s custody
    • The positive or negative effect of the interaction between the parent and the child
    • The child’s particular needs and how the parent does or does not meet them
    • How the child feels about, interacts with, looks to, or talks about the parent
      • Consider asking the child how he or she feels about the family time and/or the parent, if determined to be developmentally appropriate
    • How much comfort, nourishment, physical care, and/or sense of security and stability the parent provides the child during the family time and other contacts
    • Whether the child is ambivalent, detached, or indifferent to the parent
    • Whether the relationship has negative features, from the perspective of the child (e.g. child is uncomfortable or is resistant to family time)

    Element 3: Would severing the relationship outweigh the security, finality, and sense of belonging an adoption would provide? Factors include, but are not limited to:

    • What would life be like for the child in the adoptive home without the parent in the child's life (how, if at all, would the child be affected)
    • Whether severing the relationship would cause emotional instability and preoccupation leading to acting out, difficulties in school, insomnia, anxiety, or depression
    • Whether adoption would create a sense of stability the child needs
    • Whether a parent’s struggles with substance abuse, mental health issues, or other problems make termination of parental rights more or less detrimental to the child;
      • The parent's struggles with issues such as those that led to dependency are relevant only to the extent they inform the specific questions before the court: whether the child would benefit from continuing the relationship and be harmed, on balance, by losing it; not whether the parent is likely to ever resume custody of the child.
    • Whether the parent's conduct, related to the reasons for dependency or otherwise 1) impacted the amount of family time or contact with the child, 2) the nature of that family time or contact, or 3) negatively affected the parent-child relationship or the stability of the child's placement;
    • Whether losing the relationship with the parent would harm the child to an extent that would not be not outweighed, on balance, by the security of a new, adoptive home.

     

    Factors that May Not be Considered by the Court

    Factors that may not be considered by the court and the child welfare agency and must be avoided when assessing if the child has a substantial, positive, emotional attachment with the parent and/or whether severing the relationship would be detrimental to the child:

    • A comparison of the parent’s abilities as a caregiver with those of the potential adoptive parent
    • A parent’s inability to regain custody – a parent’s struggles are relevant to the extent that they provide the court with information necessary for the areas set forth above
    • Whether the parent can provide a home for the child
    • A post-adoption contact agreement – the court must assume the termination of parental rights terminates the parent-child relationship.
    • That a parent only has monitored or virtual family time with the child.
      • The California Supreme Court in Caden C. and subsequent Court of Appeal opinions have established that a parent may continue or develop a substantial, positive emotional attachment with the child during monitored or virtual family time.
    • Whether the parent has continued or developed a parental role toward or primary attachment for the child.
      • Refrain from the use of terms such as parental role or primary attachment in assessments and recommendations; instead focus on the extent, if any, of a substantial, positive, emotional attachment the child has toward the parent. 

     

    Conclusion

    Although the parent has the burden to prove the parent-child beneficial relationship exists to prevent the court from terminating parental rights, the social worker should provide the court with the detailed information set forth above in the Section 366.26 court report. Visitation logs will be essential to providing the court with details regarding the nature of interactions between parent and child. 

     


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