Dependency Proceedings: Can Parents Get Jailed for not Getting Drug Abuse Treatment?

By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on April 03, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The California Supreme Court recently faced the recurring challenge of parental drug abuse in juvenile dependency proceedings, which generally involve children who are neglected or abused by their parents or guardians and become "dependents" of the courts. One court in San Diego had come up with a treatment program called the Substance Abuse Recovery Management System (SARMS) aimed at parents suspected of having drug or alcohol abuse issues.

Parents in dependency proceedings could be required to complete the SARMS program as part of a family reunification plan. Now this all probably sounds fairly reasonable, but in the California Supreme Court's own words, the San Diego court also included an extra "stick" to encourage parents to complete the program. Parents who failed to comply with SARMS were subject to contempt citations and jail time. Indeed, "the 'stick' proved to be quite large in this case, in which a mother was sentenced to 300 days in custody for failing to enter drug treatment."

That's where the California Supreme Court drew the line, however, finding that a juvenile court has the power to order a parent to participate in substance abuse treatment as part of a reunification plan, but slapping the parents with contempt and incarceration for failing to comply with a plan condition is not allowed. After all, the court noted, juvenile dependency laws punish noncompliant parents simply by keeping their kids out of their custody. In the end, failing to meet a plan can be "punished" with a total loss of custody and parental rights.

In response to the San Diego County Health & Human Services Agency's suggestion that it would be beneficial for a juvenile court to be able to use "brief periods of incarceration for contempt", the court replied that there was no authorization or guidance in the books to make that possible.

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