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Name: In re M.V.
Case #: B315297, B317146
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 2 DCA
Division: 8
Opinion Date: 01/27/2023

The juvenile court abused its discretion when it failed to order a supplemental bonding study after receiving an inadequate evaluation. The minor was removed from her parents due to sexual abuse. Following 18 months of services, the juvenile court set a section 366.26 hearing. The adults in the minor’s life gave different accounts of her behavior and attachments that tended to align with their preferences for her ultimate placement. A bonding study was ordered in preparation of the hearing. The report included a psychological evaluation and extensive observations of the parents, but did not contain information about the parent relationship with the minor. While preparing the report, the expert did not conduct any in-person observation of any of the visits between the parents and the minor. Father objected to the bonding study, arguing that it was not conducted in a manner that would provide meaningful feedback on the parent/child bond. The juvenile court refused to order a new report, stating that any issues with the report could be addressed during arguments. The juvenile court terminated parental rights. The Court of Appeal reversed. Bonding studies are of particular importance in cases, such as this one, where there is a complex parental relationship with both positive and negative aspects. In re Caden C. (2021) 11 Cal.5th 614, put forth the factors which the bonding study should be guided by. Here, the bonding study did not have much information about the quality of the minor’s interactions with her parents. Instead, the bonding study assessed the parents in detail in ways that had no discernable connection to the psychological importance to the minor of her relationship with them. The bonding study discussed topics such as the parents’ inability to provide for the minor and the likelihood that they could regain custody. Additionally, the bonding study improperly assumed an open adoption which would preserve the status quo. Finally, argument is not an adequate vehicle for addressing the gross deficiencies in the report as no amount of argument can supply the omitted observations and expert analysis. It was an abuse of discretion not to order a supplemental bonding study.

The court failed to properly evaluate whether the minor had a substantial, positive emotional relationship with her parents and relied on improper considerations when it determined that termination of parental rights would not be detrimental to her. The minor was placed with the paternal grandparents and each parent visited with the minor three times per week. The grandparents wished to adopt the minor. The minor said she wanted to live together in one house with her grandparents and parents. If she had to choose between them, she would choose to live with her grandparents until they died and then live with her parents. She would be sad if she did not get to visit with her parents. The parents and grandparents had a “strained” relationship and the grandparents expressed that they may reduce parental visitation following adoption. The juvenile court summarily assessed whether there was a “bond” but did not evaluate the quality of the parent-child relationship or consider the factors put forth in Caden C. Additionally, the juvenile court’s consideration of the bonding study expert’s opinion that a guardianship would be more disruptive to the minor than an open adoption because guardianship may create a false sense of hope for the parents and introduce conflict between the involved parties, was improper because the court must consider, when determining detriment, what life would be like for the child in an adoptive home without the parent in the child’s life. The court may not consider the expectation of continued contact between the minor and the parents after adoption. When a juvenile court bases its decision to terminate parental rights on improper facts, the court abuses its discretion. The juvenile court failed to perform the appropriate analysis and the order terminating parental rights must be reversed.