Guardianship of Phillip B.
139 Cal.App.2d 407, 188 Cal.Rptr. 781 (1983)

  • Phillip was born with Downs Syndrome and a heart defect. His parents, Warren and Patricia, decided to have Phillip institutionalized as opposed to taking care of him themselves.
    • They felt that they didn’t have the ability to take care of a disabled child.
    • They left him there for years, with decreasing numbers of visits. They also took no action to remedy his heart condition.
      • But they did notice Phillip wasn’t being cared for properly and so they moved him to another, better facility.
  • Phillip was transferred to a small residential facility for the developmentally disabled. The facility staff encouraged volunteers to come help with the kids. The Haights began volunteering at the facility and developed an attachment to Phillip.
    • Phillip stayed at the Haight’s home on occasion, and began referring to them as Mom and Dad.
      • He didn’t even know what his real Mom and Dad looked like.
    • Phillips’ condition greatly improved due to the time and attention the Haight’s spent with him.
  • Warren and Patricia refused to authorize surgery for Phillip, calling the procedure ‘life-prolonging’ and not ‘life saving’.
    • Phillips’ heart problems were potentially fatal, but also easily curable with surgery.
  • When Warren and Patricia found out that Phillip had been spending a lot of time with the Haights, they forbid them from seeing him and tried to have Phillip removed to another facility.
    • Phillip was very distraught and wanted to be reunited with the Haights.
  • The Haights petitioned to be appointed Phillip’s legal guardians.
  • The Trial Court granted the Haight’s legal guardianship of Phillip. Warren and Patricia appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that an award of custody to Warren and Patricia would be detrimental to Phillip in light of the psychological or de facto parental relationship established between him and the Haights.
    • Note that the trial-type stuff got very complicated. There were orders issued and stays of orders issued and it went up to the California Supreme Court twice. But the basic point is that the formal, final order granting legal guardianship to the Haights’ got back to the Appellate Court.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed.
    • The Appellate Court looked to California law, and found that the “rights of parents to retain custody is fundamental and may not be disturbed” except in “extreme cases of persons acting in a fashion incompatible with parenthood.”
      • In addition, before issuing an award of custody to a non-parent without the consent of the parents, the court shell “make a finding that an award of custody would be detrimental to the child and the award to a non-parent is required to serve the best interests of the child.”
    • The Appellate Court agreed with the Trial Court that Warren and Patricia’s “calculated decision to remain emotionally and physically detached, abdicating the conventional role of competent decision-maker in times of demonstrated need, effectively deprived Phillip of any of the substantial benefits of a true parental relationship.”
  • The basic rule when making custody decisions is that courts cannot go straight to a best interests test to determine custody when it is a parent vs. a non-parent, because there is a parental presumption that a parent has a fundamental right to raise their own child. It is only when the parental presumption is rebutted with clear and convincing evidence can the courts consider best interests.
    • In this case, Warren and Patricia emotionally abandoned Phillip, and neglected Phillip’s medical needs. That was enough to rebut the parental presumption.