Under California’s juvenile dependency law, when a juvenile court removes a child from their parents’ custody, the county social services agency must provide the parents with “reunification services” to help them overcome the conditions that led to the child’s removal.  The agency must use “reasonable efforts” in providing those services.  To balance the interests of the parents in reunifying with their child with the child’s right to a stable and permanent home, California law limits the amount of time a parent has to reunify.  Generally, the juvenile court may order services for a maximum total period of 18 months from the time the child is removed. 

In Michael G. v. Superior Court, the California Supreme Court (Kruger, J.) considered whether a juvenile court must automatically order the county to provide services beyond 18 months if it finds that the agency failed to provide reasonable services (here, between the 12- to 18-month extension period).  The Court held that the parent is not entitled to an automatic extension of services.  Although a parent who was denied reasonable services may request that the juvenile court extend services beyond 18 months, that parent is not automatically entitled to such an extension.  Rather, once a child has already been out of the parent’s custody for 18 months, the juvenile court must consider the circumstances of the case and the best interests of the child when deciding whether to extend the reunification period.

Despite its holding that parents deprived of reasonable services are not automatically entitled to relief, the Court emphasized that they are not without any recourse.  Section 366.22 subdivision (b) of the Welfare and Institutions Code authorizes a further extension after 18 months for three narrowly defined categories of parents who have faced specified obstacles to reunification.  Additionally, parents can rely on Welfare and Institutions Code section 352’s “emergency escape valve”—a general provision governing continuances in dependency cases—in exceptional situations where the court determines that extending services beyond 18 months is not contrary to the child’s interests. 

In sum, even where the county failed to provide a parent reasonable services between the 12- and 18-month hearings, that parent is not entitled to an automatic extension of services at the 18-month review.  The juvenile court may terminate reunification services and set a hearing to determine the child’s permanent plan. 

If you have any questions about the case or other juvenile dependency matters, please contact Amy Ackerman or Abigail West.