For the Safety and Well-being of Children

Cristian was born in Tucson, Arizona in June of 2006 to Angela H and Mark I. His parents never married, and Angela assumed custody of Cristian from his birth. In 2009, Mark was granted visitation rights to Cristian by the Arizona court system and saw him regularly. In 2011, Angela married Zachary H and gave birth to their daughter Alice. In March, 2012, Mark went to Cristian's school to pick him up for his weekend visitation, but discovered the school was closed for a school holiday, and Cristian was gone. Angela sent Mark a text telling him she had moved with Cristian and her new family to California. Mark filed post-judgment proceedings in Arizona against Angela because she violated Mark's visitation order. On September 12, 2012, the Arizona court found in Mark's favor and ordered Angela to return Cristian to Mark. (Angela was not present at the hearing.)

On September 15, 2012, Angela made an emergency operator call to report abuse in progress. Responding officers found Cristian in the bathtub with serious bruises all over his body including his genitals. Cristian told the officers Zachary was trying to cut off his penis with scissors and burn him with fire-lighted sticks. Cristian also said that Zachary kept him locked in a closet and beat him. Angela told the officers she never tried to stop Zachary from abusing Cristian; that Zachary abused her too; and that she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, chronic depression and manic depression but did not take her prescribed medication for them. She also told the authorities that she and Zachary moved to California in 2011, because she knew Mark and his father were sexually abusing Cristian. (Later, Cristian's school records proved Cristian attended school through March, 2012.) For his part, Zachary said he thought Cristian had been molested by Mark and his father, and when he allegedly caught Cristian trying to molest his four-month-old daughter, "I lost it and hit him." (Medical examinations showed no indications of abuse, sexual or otherwise, to Alice, and evidence showed that Mark's father lived in Mexico and Cristian had never met him.)

Describing the matter as "shocking to me, even after all of these years," and "one of the worse cases I have seen, where there's such sadism and such disregard for a child's feelings," the bench officer in juvenile court sustained allegations under Welfare and Institutions Code (WIC) section 300, and declared Cristian and Alice dependents of the juvenile court. He removed the children from Angela's care and custody and placed them in protective custody – Alice with her Angela's aunt, and Cristian with Mark in Arizona after Cristian recovered from his wounds and was released from the hospital. Angela was sent to a woman's shelter from domestic violence and Zachary went to jail. The juvenile court retained jurisdiction of Cristian and Alice pending follow-up and monitoring evaluations. It further agreed to be in contact with the Arizona court system because of Mark's pending case against Angela for abducting Cristian, but through clerical error, failed to do so.

Angela appealed the juvenile court's continued jurisdiction based on the UCCJEA (Uniform Child Custody and Judicial Enforcement Act). She argued that once the immediate legal issues of Cristian and Alice were solved under the WIC, only Arizona had the authority to make future decisions regarding the children. The appellate court agreed with Angela; but denied her request citing "harmless error" of the juvenile court.

The UCCJEA governs dependency proceedings for children. It is the exclusive method for determining the proper court/jurisdiction to decide custody issues involving a child when that child is subject to a sister state custody order. It is an agreement between every state in the United States, and exists to prevent parents (and possibly other persons) from taking children to other states to get favorable treatment for their side of child custody issues.

In this case, when the emergency situation ended, Cristian's custody and other domestic legal issues should have been determined by the court in Arizona (because Arizona originally took jurisdiction of the case, the parties (Mark and Angela) and Cristian). However, since no harm was found in the way the California juvenile court handled the case, the court would not reverse its findings.

In every case where a request is made to reverse a decision based on error, there must be some showing that error caused a harm to the party requesting the reversal. Here, the juvenile court gave custody of Cristian to Mark and continued to monitor Cristian's progress in Mark's home. Had jurisdiction been turned over to Arizona as soon as the emergency situation ended, Cristian would still have been in Mark's custody (having won his abduction filing against Angela), and Angela would be in no better position than she was with the findings of the California juvenile court.

Interstate child custody battles can be, and are usually very technical. When the issue arises, it is always in the best interests of the parties to have competent legal representation.

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