California Court Upholds Emergency Jurisdiction Under Child Custody Law

watch-children-1415869-m.jpgParents in San Diego who are engaged in child custody disputes are typically arguing over many of the fine details of legal and physical custody. That is, each parent usually wants to play a significant role in the child’s life after a divorce or separation, either by having primary or sole physical custody of the child and/or by being the person with the authority to make important decision about the child’s heath, education and general welfare. But family law cases can present many more complicated issues, such as the court’s jurisdiction over the custody dispute in the first instance. If you have a question concerning a child custody case, it is critical that you contact a local family law attorney with extensive experience in the courts in and around the San Diego area.

In California, courts are permitted to exercise jurisdiction over children in a custody case according to the requirements of the state family code. Specifically, under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (the “UCCJEA”), the state may assume jurisdiction only if one of the following applies: 1) California is the child’s “home state”; 2) a court of another state does not have jurisdiction because it is not his or her home state; 3) the child’s home state declined to exercise jurisdiction, citing California as the more appropriate location; 4) all courts with jurisdiction declined to exercise same because California is the more suitable forum; or 5) no other state has jurisdiction under the statute.

In a recent case, as part of a plan devised by both parents, the mother was arrested for attempting to smuggle three pounds of heroin from Mexico to the United States. She had her two young children, ages five and three, in the car at the time hoping that they would serve as a “decoy.” They lived in Tijuana and the parents (who were no longer together) had an informal, shared custody arrangement. The San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency petitioned the court on behalf of the children, asserting that they were at substantial risk because they were with the mother in the car while she was attempting to smuggle drugs into the country. At the dependency hearing, the court exercised emergency jurisdiction under the UCCJEA, pointing out that the children’s home state is Mexico.

The court removed the children from their parental care, placed them with a relative, and ordered reunification services. The mother appealed the decision, arguing that the court erred by exercising jurisdiction without first asking a court in the children’s “home state” to determine whether Mexico intended to assert jurisdiction. The court of appeals agreed that the failure to contact the Mexican authorities was error, but concluded that the court had properly taken emergency jurisdiction over the children due to the risk the parents placed the children in. The error was deemed harmless and the court remanded the case for the limited purpose of contacting the Mexican authorities to determine whether it plans to assume jurisdiction to protect the children.

As we can see from this decision, courts handling child custody cases will always seek to ensure that the best interests of the child are duly met. To help achieve this goal, parents who are facing child custody issues are encouraged to contact an experienced family law attorney.

Roy M. Doppelt has been representing parents involved in child custody disputes for more than 20 years. Doppelt & Forney serves clients throughout Southern California, including San Diego, Encinitas, La Jolla, and Chula Vista. For a free consultation, contact Doppelt & Forney through our website, or give us a call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).

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