Justia Washington Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Family Law
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This case presented an issue of first impression for the Washington Supreme Court relating to the business records exception to the rule against hearsay: the admissibility of a drug rehabilitation and testing center incident report under RCW 5.45.020. The child in this case, M.R., was removed from her parents’ custody shortly after birth because of her mother’s history of involvement with Child Protective Services for her two older children and the mother’s suspected ongoing substance abuse and mental health problems. In 2017, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (Department) petitioned to terminate the parental rights of M.R.’s father, D.R. Throughout the course of M.R.’s dependency, the juvenile court ordered D.R. to engage in various remedial services designed to correct his perceived parenting deficiencies. One such requirement asked D.R. to provide a urinalysis (UA) sample. D.R. went for the UA test but left without providing a sample. The clinic staff member who monitored the test submitted an incident report, which stated D.R. had been seen attempting to open a UA “device” during the test. The State moved to terminate D.R.’s parental rights, and at the time of the trial, despite several follow-up requests to comply with a UA test, D.R. failed to produce a UA sample. At trial, the incident report was admitted as a business record to show D.R. was caught attempting to use a UA device. In November 2020, D.R.’s parental rights were terminated. He appealed, arguing the judge committed prejudicial error by admitting the incident report as a business record because the observation of the UA device involved a degree of “skill of observation” akin to expert testimony and in excess of the scope of the business records exception. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court determined the judge's decision to admit the incident report met applicable legal standards, and was not manifestly unreasonable or based on untenable grounds. Therefore, the Court found no abuse of discretion and therefore affirmed. View "In re Welfare of M.R." on Justia Law

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A child was taken from his mother after she brought him to the hospital. Hospital staff found the child had serious injuries. The father, who lived separately from the mother, asked that the child be placed with him. The Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Family recommended out-of-home placement, citing concern for the child’s safety. A court determined the child should have been placed with his godparents, based on the Department’s recommendation. The father moved for discretionary review of the shelter care order, arguing the court erred because the Department failed to make reasonable efforts to prevent removal from a parent. The Court of Appeals denied review, and a panel of the court declined to modify its ruling. The father than moved for discretionary review by the Oregon Supreme Court, which was granted. The issue this case presented for the Supreme Court became moot, as the father ultimately agreed to an order of dependency in a subsequent hearing. The Supreme Court still opined on what “reasonable efforts” the Department had to make before a child could be removed for a parent or guardian’s care. The Department argued (and the trial court agreed) that given the acute and emergent circumstances of the case, it did not violate the reasonable efforts requirement. The father argued there was no such exception for emergent circumstances. The Supreme Court provided additional guidance as to what constituted reasonable efforts, and here, held the trial court erred in excusing the Department from making reasonable efforts to place the child with the father. View "In re Dependency of L.C.S." on Justia Law

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In February 2016, three-month-old A.K., daughter of respondents Michelle Desmet and Sandro Kasco, was taken into protective custody after she suffered a spiral fracture to her left femur. When the parents could not explain the injury, A.K. was placed with her paternal aunt for six months while the Department of Social Health Services (DSHS) initiated an investigation. By August, A.K. was returned to her parents and a dependency action was dismissed. In August 2018, the parents sued the DSHS (the State) for negligent investigation, negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED), and invasion of privacy by false light (false light) based on the Department’s allegedly harmful investigation and issuance of a letter indicating that allegations of child abuse/neglect against Desmet were founded (the founded letter). The Department moved for summary judgment, arguing it was immune from suit under RCW 4.24.595(2) because its actions in A.K.’s dependency proceedings were taken pursuant to the juvenile court’s order to place A.K. with her aunt. The trial court denied summary judgment and entered a final order finding that no immunity applied. The Department appealed on the immunity issue, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court. The Department claimed on appeal to the Washington Supreme Court that the Court of Appeals’ decision rendered RCW 4.24.595(2) meaningless and that the court erroneously refused to consider the legislative history of RCW 4.24.595(2), which, in the Department’s view, was enacted to bar claims like those brought by the parents. The Supreme Court found the unambiguous text of RCW 4.24.595(2) did not grant the Department immunity for all actions in an investigation of child abuse/neglect that might coincide with a court order in related dependency proceedings. The Court of Appeals was affirmed and the matter remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Desmet v. Washington" on Justia Law

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The Washington Supreme Court exercised discretionary interlocutory review in this case primarily to decide whether the Washington Indian Child Welfare Act (WICWA) required the State to take active efforts to prevent the breakup of J.M.W.’s family before taking him into emergency foster care. Consistent with the plain text and purpose of WICWA, the Supreme Court concluded that it did. The Court also concluded the trial court was required to make a finding on the record at the interim shelter care hearing that J.M.W.’s out of home placement was necessary to prevent imminent physical damage or harm. The matter was remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings. View "In re Dependency of J.M.W." on Justia Law

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N.G., the subject of this dependency proceeding, was born to mother M.S., in 2011. N.G.’s father had no meaningful relationship with N.G. M.S. met J.R., permissive intervenor in this case, in 2014. M.S. and J.R. had a child, N.G.’s half-brother, and married in 2015 but divorced in 2016. The children remained with M.S. and had regular visits with J.R. In August 2020, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (the Department) received a report that M.S. was neglecting the children by locking them in their bedrooms for long periods of time, exposing them to drug paraphernalia, and failing to properly feed them. In October, a juvenile court entered an agreed shelter care order that placed N.G. and his half-sibling with J.R. M.S. agreed to this placement in the dependency order. In the same month, J.R. moved for the juvenile court to grant concurrent jurisdiction over both children in family court so J.R. could modify his son’s parenting plan and petition for nonparental custody of N.G. The juvenile court granted the motion as to J.R.’s son but denied concurrent jurisdiction for N.G. “at this time.” Despite concurrent jurisdiction over N.G. being denied, J.R. petitioned for de facto parentage in family court in December. J.R. then filed a motion to intervene in the dependency. The juvenile court granted J.R.’s motion to intervene under CR 24(b) without explaining its reasoning. M.S. filed a motion for discretionary review with the Court of Appeals, which was ultimately denied. The Washington Supreme Court found the Court of Appeals correctly denied the mother’s motion for discretionary review. "Although the trial court committed probable error when it failed to articulate why it allowed permissive intervention under CR 24(b)(2), the intervention of the dependent child’s former stepfather did not have an immediate effect outside the courtroom. Consequently, the Court of Appeals did not commit probable error in denying discretionary review." View "In re Dependency of N.G." on Justia Law

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Daniel Watanabe and Solveig (Watanabe) Pedersen divorced in 2016. During the marriage, Pedersen inherited a large sum of money and land after her mother passed away. At their dissolution trial, the court held that various real properties were Pedersen’s separate property, despite the fact that both Watanabe’s and Pedersen’s names were on the title for the properties. Watanabe appealed, arguing the trial court erred by failing to apply the joint title gift presumption since the property was acquired in both of their names during marriage. Watanabe also argued the trial court erred by allowing extrinsic evidence of Pedersen’s intent when she quitclaimed her separate property to the community. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the gift presumption did not apply, regardless of whether the property was acquired before or during marriage. The Court of Appeals also held that extrinsic evidence was appropriately admitted to determine whether Pedersen intended to transmute separate property, not to dispute the quitclaim deed itself. After review, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals: the joint title gift presumption did not apply regardless of whether the property was acquired before or during marriage. In addition, the Supreme Court held that extrinsic evidence could be admitted to explain the intent of the parties when signing a quitclaim deed to determine whether a party intended to convert separate property into community property. View "In re Marriage of Watanabe" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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K.W. was removed from his long-term placement with his relative, “Grandma B.,” after she took a one-day trip and did not notify the social worker of the trip. The consequence of this removal resulted in tremendous upheaval in K.W.’s life and violated the requirements of RCW 13.34.130. Though K.W. was legally free, the placement preferences set out in the statute still applied, and the court erred in failing to apply them and failing to place K.W. with relatives. View "In re Dependency of K.W." on Justia Law

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The Washington Supreme Court granted discretionary review in this case to address a concern about inconsistent practices among the three divisions of the Washington Court of Appeals in creating case titles in dependency and termination proceedings. Inconsistency in the use of parties’ names in such case titles has been an issue among Washington appellate courts. While all three divisions generally use initials in place of children’s names, Division One routinely added parents’ full names to case titles along with their designation as “appellant.” Division Two often changed case titles to designate appealing parents, but used parents’ initials rather than their names. And Division Three typically did not include the names or initials of appealing parents. In this case, Division One followed its typical practice by changing the case title from that created in the superior court to add the mother’s full name and replace the child’s name with initials, while retaining the child’s birth date. The Supreme Court concluded this practice was inconsistent with RAP 3.4 and the 2018 Court of Appeals General Order. Accordingly, the case was remanded with instructions for the Court of Appeals to revise the case title in accordance with the court rule and general order. View "In re Welfare of K.D." on Justia Law

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At issue in this case was whether the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (Department) met its burden under the Washington State Indian Child Welfare Act (WICWA) to provide active efforts to reunify C.A. with her children. After review, the Washington Supreme Court held the Department failed to provide active efforts when it provided untimely referrals and only passively engaged with C.A. from January through June 2019. The Supreme Court also held that the dependency court impermissibly applied the futility doctrine when it speculated that even had the Department acted more diligently, C.A. would not have been responsive. Therefore, the dependency court’s finding that the Department satisfied the active efforts requirement from January through June 2019 was reversed. The matter was remanded and the dependency court directed to order the Department to provide active efforts in accordance with the Court's opinion before the court proceeds to hear the filed termination of parental rights petitions. View "In re Dependency of G.J.A." on Justia Law

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The parent in this case, J.C., contended that the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) did not tailor its offer of services to accommodate her intellectual disability prior to recommending termination of her parental rights. “Understandable offers of services are essential to giving a parent a meaningful opportunity to remedy their parental deficiencies and preserve their parent-child relationship. … A termination is certainly erroneous where DCYF did not fulfill its duty to understandably offer services to the parent. Absent sufficient evidence proving that DCYF fulfilled this duty, it is not possible for a court to determine why efforts to reunite the family were unsuccessful. Perhaps the parent was unwilling or unable to remedy their deficiencies. Or perhaps the parent was capable of improvement but struggling to understand precisely what they must do. Both situations are frustrating and potentially devastating for those involved, but there is a world of difference between them.” In this case, the Washington Supreme Court concluded DCYF did not prove by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence that it made sufficient efforts to ensure that its offers of services were reasonably understandable to J.C. in light of her potential intellectual disability. It therefore reversed the order terminating her parental rights. View "In re Termination of Parental Rights to M.A.S.C." on Justia Law