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Definition of “Substance Abuse” and is a Finding of Parental Substance Abuse Alone Sufficient to Warrant Juvenile Court Jurisdiction

Case Name: In re N.R. (2023) 15 Cal.5th 520
Case #: S274943
Last Updated: December 14, 2023

(1) What is the definition of “substance abuse” for purposes of declaring a child a dependent under Welfare and Institutions Code section 300, subdivision (b)(1)? (2) Where a child is under the age of six, does a finding of parental substance abuse alone provide sufficient evidence to warrant juvenile court jurisdiction?

Substance abuse, which is defined as the excessive use of drugs or alcohol, must render a parent unable to provide regular care for a child and place that child at substantial risk of harm in order to support jurisdiction. N.R.’s parents did not live together. When safety concerns arose at Mother’s residence, the Agency assessed Father’s home. Father took a drug test, which came back positive for cocaine, and Father admitted to using cocaine the prior weekend during a birthday celebration. He said that he used every couple of weeks and never when N.R. was in his care. N.R. was removed from Father and jurisdiction was found based on Father’s “substantial drug abuse history.” Father appealed. The Court of Appeal affirmed and the California Supreme Court granted review, then reversed and remanded. Substance abuse bears its ordinary meaning, which is the excessive use of drugs or alcohol. Substance abuse does not need to be established by the relevant diagnostic criteria of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or require a professional diagnosis. Had the Legislature intended the term to bear the technical meaning within the DSM, it would have mentioned such. Further, such technical criteria may be susceptible to inconsistent or inappropriate application in the hands of untrained laypeople, such as social workers. Further, requiring a professional diagnosis is not plausible because the information needed to make an accurate diagnosis must come from the patient and parents may not be forthcoming during the dependency process. Further, jurisdiction under section 300, subdivision (b)(1)(D) additionally requires that such substance abuse leads to an inability on the part of the parent to provide regular care for a child that causes the child to suffer, or creates a substantial risk that the child will suffer, serious physical harm or illness. This standard is sufficiently concrete and intelligible that it avoids due process concerns.

The tender years presumption is inconsistent with legislative intent and is insufficient to establish jurisdiction. A finding of substance abuse is not prima facie evidence of an inability to provide regular care for a child of “tender years.” The “tender years” principle, put forward in In re Drake M. (2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 754 short circuits and oversimplifies the necessary risk analysis required by section 300, subdivision (b)(1)(D). If the Legislature had intended to create such a presumption, then they would have included it in the statutory text. A child’s youth and maturity level can bear upon the care that the child may require and whether a parent’s substance abuse places the child at risk of harm.

This case was decided on 12/14/2023. Chief Justice Guerrero authored the opinion of the court (unanimous decision).

Review on this issue had also been granted with briefing deferred in:

  • In re Kieran S. (B318672) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 9/13/2023 (S280993)
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