SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Parents doing their best to protect their out-of-control kids got a tough message from a California appeals court: If you don't keep them from harm, the state can take them from you.
Legal observers said Thursday's ruling by the 2nd District Court of Appeal runs contrary to laws and court rulings that defer to parents in custody disputes with the state.
"Typically, for the state to take a child from a parent involuntarily, there is a finding of abuse or neglect or unfitness on the part of the parent," said Ralph Richard Banks, a Stanford law professor who teaches family law. "But in the absence of any type of determination of parental deficiency, it is unusual and perhaps unconstitutional."
Other experts say the case reflects frustration with how to corral wayward kids, and shows the need for early, comprehensive intervention that keeps children with their families but gets them help.
The ruling came in the case of a Los Angeles County mother whose teen daughter repeatedly ran away from home, had a child at the age of 15, and skipped school. At least one of her absences required a visit to a hospital, according to court documents.
The appellate court said the girl remained incorrigible despite her mother's best efforts, which included looking for her each time she left home, sending her to live with her grandparents, and calling the police and Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services for help.
"(The) mother in this case was neither neglectful nor blameworthy in being unable to supervise or protect her daughter," the court said.
State law is clear, though, that children can be taken if they have suffered or are at substantial risk of suffering serious harm that a parent is unable to stop, Associate Justice Brian Hoffstadt wrote.
The court's ruling upheld a juvenile court's decision to assert control over the girl and allow the county to place her elsewhere. The county placed her back with her grandparents.
The decision contradicted a different state appeals court's ruling in 2010. Such conflicts between appeals courts are often resolved by the state Supreme Court.
It's not clear how agencies will react, said Michael Wald, another Stanford professor who focuses on children's rights and welfare.
Wald said the state law on which the appellate court ruled Thursday is meant to apply to cases where parents have a severe mental illness or are homeless. Though parents are not to blame for those conditions, the state may intervene in order to keep children out of harm.
In this case, in which neither of those conditions applied, the court misinterpreted the statute, Wald said.
But the case reflects the more fundamental problem of what to do with teenagers who are out of control, according to Wald. The mother said her daughter should have been forced into juvenile delinquency court as a truant, according to court records.
"There's always this frustration as to what do you do, how do you get a handle on these cases," Wald said.
Removing children from their homes is not the best solution because governments are not equipped to be parents, said Susan Dreyfus, president and CEO of The Alliance for Strong Families and Communities and the former secretary of Washington state's Department of Social and Health Services.
Instead, she said the focus should be on early intervention for wayward kids that includes public services such as in-home counseling and also sets the child up with mentors and family and friends who can help provide support.
"Kids want their parents and most parents are truly doing the best they can with what they know and what resources they have around them," she said.