The juvenile court erred in denying father’s request for a contested evidentiary hearing before it terminated dependency jurisdiction and issued exit orders. Minors were detained from mother following stepfather’s arrest and a police search of the home, which revealed a loaded handgun and cocaine. A petition was sustained and the minors were removed from mother. Father, who still lived in Russia, was not present at the initial hearing because he had not yet been located by the Department. Services and visitation were ordered for mother. Father had not seen the minors since 2014 when they visited Russia. Father said that when he visited the U.S. in 2014 mother had refused to allow him to visit the minors. He planned to attend the jurisdiction and disposition hearing, and intended to seek custody of the children and take them to Russia. The social worker reported that during a monitored visit, the minors showed no affection or attachment, and that one minor did not appear to know who he was. At the jurisdiction/disposition hearing, mother submitted evidence that she had been complying with her case plan and was in the process of divorcing stepfather. Mother continued to test negative for substances, and her visits with the minors went well. The Department was still concerned about mother’s poor judgment in the past, and recommended that the minors continue placement with grandmother, with services for mother. Mother submitted a declaration which stated that father had only met the younger minor three times. He had not supported the minors, and never sought visitation in a Russian proceeding which had ordered him to pay child support. The Department thought it would be detrimental to the minors to place them with father because he had not maintained contact with them for many years, and had not maintained a relationship with them since the inception of the case. The court ordered the minors returned to mother on family maintenance and ordered services for father. Visitation was ordered in California, or by telephone or video. At the six-month review hearing, the Department recommended six more months of family maintenance services. The children were doing well with mother, but mother still had issues to address. Father again requested custody of the minors. The court followed the Department’s recommendation, leaving the minors with mother and continuing services. It ordered visitation for father when he was in Los Angeles, or through video conferences. At the twelve-month review hearing, the Department recommended return of the minors to mother, with jurisdiction terminated. Father requested a contested hearing, as he claimed that mother was residing with a convicted felon and possibly dealing drugs. He made an offer of proof that his investigator would testify that people were coming and going and there were signs at the residence of criminal activity. The point of the contested hearing was for him to show that mother should not have custody of the minors. The juvenile court denied the request for a contested hearing, finding the evidence was not relevant to the issues before the court. The juvenile court followed the Department’s recommendation, returning physical custody of the minors to mother, with visitation for father when in Los Angeles. The appellate court held that the denial of a hearing was error. Father’s offer of proof was sufficient to warrant an evidentiary hearing. The juvenile court rejected the private investigator’s testimony without hearing his account of the events. It had no opportunity to assess mother’s response. If the investigator’s testimony was believed and mother could not provide a sufficient explanation, there was a reasonable probability that the result of the proceedings would have been more favorable to father. Therefore the error was not harmless. The orders terminating jurisdiction were reversed, and the matter remanded for a new hearing.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: https://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/B293453.PDF