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Name: In re Christopher L.
Case #: B305225
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 2 DCA
Division: 1
Opinion Date: 11/02/2020
Subsequent History: Review granted 2/17/2021 (S265910)
Summary

The court’s errors in determining parentage and holding the jurisdiction/disposition hearing without appointing counsel for Father were harmless error. Minor Christopher and his older sister I.L. were detained after Christopher was born testing positive for methamphetamine. The siblings were placed with a maternal aunt who had already adopted two of Mother’s other children. Mother was married to Father at the time of Christopher’s birth. Father, who was incarcerated, was provided notice of the detention hearing but was not appointed counsel. The jurisdiction/disposition hearing was held in Father’s absence and no counsel appeared on his behalf. The court sustained the petition and denied both parents reunification services based on their previous failure to reunify with older siblings. At the permanency hearing, Father appeared by telephone and was represented by counsel. The court found Father to be the presumed father of I.L. and terminated his parental rights as to I.L. At a further permanency hearing, Father was found to be the alleged father of Christopher and his parental rights as to Christopher were also terminated. Father appealed and also filed a motion regarding the earlier termination of parental rights of I.L., contending that the notice of appeal for Christopher should include the orders regarding I.L. The appellate court affirmed the orders. Father was Christopher’s presumed father because he was married to Mother at the time of Christopher’s birth, and should have been appointed counsel at the detention hearing. The trial court erred in failing to do so. Further, the court erred when it held the jurisdiction/disposition hearing without Father or counsel’s appearance, because Penal Code section 2625, subdivision (d) requires that a prisoner be permitted to participate in certain dependency proceedings regarding his or her child. However, these errors do not require reversal. The court found that the Watson prejudice standard applied, but noted that the analysis would yield the same result under the more stringent Chapman standard. Father fell squarely within the 361.5(b)(10) bypass provision as his lengthy criminal history of substance abuse offenses caused him to lose custody of his three older children and led to his current incarceration. He would not be eligible for parole until outside the maximum reunification period. Father had never met Christopher, who was thriving in his placement with the maternal aunt. Given these facts, there was no basis on which even the most competent counsel could have shown it was in Christopher’s best interest to override the statutory presumption that reunification services should be denied. Father’s motion as to I.L. was also denied.

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: https://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/B305225N.PDF