It was error to treat a parent’s lack of progress in addressing substance abuse and mental health issues as a categorical bar to establishing the parental benefit exception. Caden C. was removed from mother at four years old, due to mother’s drug use and mental health concerns. At the Welfare and Institutions Code section 366.26 hearing, mother argued that the parental benefit exception applied and the trial court agreed, ordering that Caden remain in foster care. County counsel appealed and the Court of Appeal reversed, holding that because the parent continued to struggle with substance abuse and mental health issues and because of the risks of foster care and benefits of the potential adoptive home, no reasonable court could find the child’s relationship with his parent outweighed the benefits of adoption. The California Supreme Court reversed the opinion of the appellate court. At the section 366.26 hearing, if the parent shows that termination would be detrimental to the child for at least one specifically enumerated reason, the court should decline to terminate parental rights and select another permanent plan. The parental benefit exception requires that a parent must establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that (1) the parent has regularly visited with the child (2) that the child would benefit from continuing the relationship and (3) that terminating the relationship would be detrimental to the child. This exception applies in situations where a child cannot be in a parent’s custody but where severing the child’s relationship with the parent, even when balanced against the benefits of a new adoptive home, would be harmful for the child. Thus, the court should not look to whether the parent can provide a home for the child; the question is just whether losing the relationship with the parent would harm the child to an extent not outweighed, on balance, by the security of a new, adoptive home. While parents need not show that they are actively involved in maintaining their sobriety or complying substantially with their case plan, their struggles are relevant because they may create a negative effect on the interaction with the minor such that the beneficial nature of the relationship may be affected. Because the Court of Appeal relied on mother’s failure to address her drug and mental health issues as the basis for its decision and did not connect mother’s substance abuse or mental health to its assessment of whether the relationship with the minor was detrimental, the decision was reversed.
A hybrid standard of review applies to the parental-benefit exception to the termination of parental rights at the section 366.26 hearing. The substantial evidence standard of review applies to the first two elements of the beneficial relationship exception, as these are factual determinations. The third element whether termination of parental rights would be detrimental to the child is reviewed for abuse of discretion as this element focuses on the application of a legal standard. At its core, the hybrid standard embodies the principle that the statutory scheme does not authorize a reviewing court to substitute its own judgment as to what is in the child’s best interests for the trial court’s determinations.