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In re L.B.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

December 27, 2017


         Appeal from the Order Entered May 24, 2017 In the Court of Common Pleas of Clinton County Juvenile Division at No(s): CP-18-DP-0000009-2017



          MOULTON, J.

         Clinton County Children and Youth Services ("CYS") appeals from the order entered May 24, 2017 finding that CYS cannot establish child abuse under the Child Protective Services Law ("CPSL"), 23 Pa.C.S. §§ 6301 et seq., based "on the actions committed by" A.A.R. ("Mother") while she was pregnant with L.B. ("Child"). We conclude that a mother's use of illegal drugs while pregnant may constitute child abuse under the CPSL if CYS establishes that, by using the illegal drugs, the mother intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly caused, or created a reasonable likelihood of, bodily injury to a child after birth. We therefore vacate the order and remand for further proceedings.

         The trial court summarized the relevant procedural and factual history as follows:

On February 7, 2017, [CYS] filed an Application for Emergency Protective Custody indicating that [Child] was born [in] January [] 2017 at the Williamsport Hospital, that Mother had tested positive for marijuana and suboxone and that Mother on January 27, 2017 while pregnant had completed a drug test and was positive for opiates, benzodiazepines and marijuana. [CYS] also alleged that [Child] was suffering from withdrawal symptoms and was undergoing treatment at the Williamsport Hospital.
This Court issued an Order for Emergency Protective Custody on February 7, 2017. On February 10, 2017, the Honorable Michael F. Salisbury conducted a 72 hour Shelter Care Hearing due to this Court's unavailability and continued legal and physical custody of the child with [CYS]. [CYS] timely filed a Dependency Petition on February 13, 2017 alleging that the child was without proper parental care or control and further alleged that the child was a victim of child abuse as defined by 23 Pa. C.S.A. § 6303. Specifically, [CYS] alleged and has continued to argue that under Subsection 6303(b.1)(1) . . . the parent, specifically Mother, caused bodily injury to the child through a recent act or failure to act.[1] [CYS] alleged in the Dependency Petition that the child had been in Williamsport Hospital for a period of nineteen (19) days suffering from drug dependence withdrawal due to the substances Mother ingested while Mother was pregnant with the child and that Mother tested positive for marijuana, opiates and benzodiazepines at the time of the child's birth. Mother had no prescription for any of these medications.
. . .
[T]his Court entered an Order finding the child dependent on March 15, 2017, maintaining legal and physical custody of the child with [CYS] and deferring a decision on the issue whether the child was a victim of abuse until the Dispositional Hearing which was agreed to by all of the parties.
On March 16, 2017, this Court entered an Order directing the Solicitor for [CYS], the attorney for Mother and the attorney for Father to file an appropriate Memorandum of Law on the issue of whether Mother may be found to have committed abuse of this child as alleged by [CYS]. Mother's attorney and Father's attorney, along with [CYS's] Solicitor filed said Memorandums of Law timely and at the Dispositional Hearing on March 30, 2017, this Court continued legal and physical custody of the child with [CYS]. This Court also at the Dispositional Hearing directed the Office of Court Administrator to schedule a further hearing concerning the abuse issue as insufficient time was allotted at that March 30, 2017 proceeding to receive sufficient evidence to decide that issue. The Office of Court Administrator scheduled the issue of abuse for an extended hearing on May 26, 2017. Further, a Permanency Review Hearing was also scheduled for May 26, 2017. The Guardian Ad Litem filed a request for argument on April 4, 2017 regarding the issue of abuse, indicating that the Guardian Ad Litem believed that it would be advantageous for this Court and the parties for this Court to decide the legal issue before receiving testimony and evidence at an extended hearing. This Court scheduled argument for May 9, 2017.

Trial Court Opinion, 5/24/17, at 1-4 ("Rule 1925(a) Op.").

         The trial court heard argument from all counsel and the guardian ad litem on May 9, 2017 to determine whether Mother had committed child abuse within the meaning of section 6303(b.1) of the CPSL. On May 24, 2017, the trial court filed an order finding that CYS "cannot establish child abuse . . . on the actions committed by Mother while the child was a fetus." Order, 5/23/17; see also Rule 1925(a) Op. at 4 ("[T]he law does not provide for finding of abuse due to actions taken by an individual upon a fetus."). On May 25, 2017, CYS timely filed a notice of appeal.

         On appeal, CYS raises the following issue for our review: "Whether the Trial Court erred by finding that [CYS] cannot establish child abuse in the matter of the actions committed by Mother, reasoning that the child was a fetus and not considered a child pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S. § 630[3]." CYS's Br. at 4.

         CYS argues that Mother's prenatal drug use was a "recent act or failure to act" that "caus[ed], " or "creat[ed] a reasonable likelihood of, " bodily injury under section 6303(b.1)(1) or (5) because that drug use caused Child to be born with withdrawal symptoms. The trial court rejected this argument, concluding that the CPSL does not permit a finding of child abuse based on Mother's actions before Child was born.

         "A challenge to the court's interpretation and application of a statute raises a question of law." In re A.B., 987 A.2d 769, 773 (Pa.Super. 2009) (en banc). Our standard of review is de novo, and our scope of review is plenary. D.K. v. S.P.K., 102 A.3d 467, 471 (Pa.Super. 2014). This Court has set forth the following principles for statutory interpretation:

[O]ur Court has long recognized the following principles of statutory construction set forth in the Statutory Construction Act, 1 Pa.C.S.A. § 1501 et seq.:
The goal in interpreting any statute is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the General Assembly. Our Supreme Court has stated that the plain language of a statute is in general the best indication of the legislative intent that gave rise to the statute. When the language is clear, explicit, and free from any ambiguity, we discern intent from the language alone, and not from the arguments based on legislative history or 'spirit' of the statute. We must construe words and phrases in the statute according to their common and approved usage. We also must construe a statute in such a way as to give effect to all its provisions, if possible, thereby avoiding the need to label any provision as mere surplusage.

Id. at 471-72 (quoting C.B. v. J.B., 65 A.3d 946, 951 (Pa.Super. 2013)).

         "As part of [a] dependency adjudication, a court may find a parent to be the perpetrator of child abuse, " as defined by the CPSL. In re L.Z., 111 A.3d 1164, 1176 (Pa. 2015). The CPSL defines "child abuse" in relevant part as follows:

The term "child abuse" shall mean intentionally, knowingly or recklessly doing any of the ...

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