The court’s authority to enter derivative findings is found in Family Court Act § 1046(a)(i), which provides that “proof of abuse or neglect of one child shall be admissible evidence on the issue of the abuse or neglect of any other child of, or the legal responsibility of, the respondent.” Section 1046(a)(i) authorizes the family court to extend “its protective cloak around a child’ ” before injury occurs. This evidentiary rule recognizes “when there is a finding that one child is abused, as Christopher certainly was here, experience shows that there is a substantial risk of future abuse to the other children” holding that the death of 19 month old infant Christopher due to non-accidental scalding burns constituted child abuse by the respondent mother and rendered his five-year-old surviving sibling, who had not suffered any injuries, a derivatively abused child).
The courts have sustained derivative findings based on predicate offenses by respondents against biological children, legally-related children and non-related children finding respondent’s commission of sexual abuse against adopted stepdaughter, who lived with him, a basis for derivative neglect finding as to his birth daughters grandfather’s conviction by guilty plea of rape in the second degree of his 14–year–old daughter served as predicate offense in finding derivative neglect of his grandchildren; respondent sexually abused female children in a day care center based in his home, which formed a predicate offense for a derivative neglect finding as to his twin sons, one of whom was in the home when respondent sexually abused the other children;. Thus, derivative findings of child abuse and neglect are powerful tools and the due process rights of parents and children require an individualized determination of the actual harm or imminent danger of harm that the prior offensive conduct imposes for the respondent’s children or other children currently in his care.
The courts have developed the following framework for analyzing and determining whether a derivative finding is warranted: 1) a predicate offense of the abuse or neglect of a child is established; 2) the offense “was not remote in time”; 3) the prior offense was “serious or involved a course of abusive or neglectful behavior”; and 4) “the conduct demonstrated a fundamental defect in respondent’s understanding of the duties and obligations of parenthood”. In determining whether deficient conditions still exist, the court must consider “whether sufficient positive change in the parents’ behavior has occurred”.
In cases alleging derivative abuse based on a predicate sex crimes offense, the statute requires the court to find first that the respondent “committed (or knowingly allowed to be committed) a felony sex offense”. “The statute does not specify the person against whom the felony sex offense must have been committed”. Moreover, for the purpose of establishing a predicate offense, the statute does not require that the respondent be a parent or other person responsible for the care of the first child victim holding that respondent’s victimization of nine-year-old daughter of maternal cousin, for whom he was not legally responsible, still provided a “legal basis for a finding of derivative neglect of his own two children,” reversing family court’s dismissal of the derivative neglect petition. The petitioner has the burden of proof and must establish the elements to support a derivative finding by a preponderance of “only competent, material and relevant evidence”.
This court does not find by a preponderance of the evidence that the testimony of the non-subject child established acts of sexual abuse by Respondent. The child pornography was vague as to the times and circumstances of the three alleged incidents. She testified that her siblings were in the rooms with her when all three incidents occurred, but none of them awoke. Specifically as to the incident in 2010, she stated that four siblings were asleep in one bed with her, that they changed positions during the night, and that Respondent put his penis on her buttocks. She stated, however, that none of her siblings awoke or witnessed the alleged molestation and that she did not cry out. The court finds this description implausible and incredible. Further, the ACS Caseworker failed to interview or makes any attempt to interview any of her siblings or her mother to investigate or confirm the allegations. Nor did the Caseworker present any evidence that a Family Court or Criminal Court action had been brought against Respondent based on her allegations. She stated she did not report these alleged events for two years because she feared Respondent. However, she also testified she was not afraid of him, he had never threatened her and she had not had contact with him for about two years. Accordingly, the court finds that the testimony of the non-subject child is not sufficient to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that Respondent committed an act of sex abuse against her. The court also finds that the testimony of the ACS Caseworker to be inaccurate as to many facts to which he initially testified nor was his investigation thorough as to her allegations of Respondent’s sexual abuse.ACS has proven by a preponderance of the evidence, and Respondent has admitted to, his 2001 conviction for felony sex offenses committed against his minor half-sisters, offenses which constitute acts of abuse defined in Family Court Act § 1012(e)(iii) and establish a predicate offense of child abuse.
To sustain a derivative finding based on the 2001 conviction, the predicate offense must be analyzed first as to its “time proximity” to the birth of the subject children and the initiation of the instant proceedings. The court also must analyze relevant time frames and the current circumstances of Respondent to determine whether the conditions that led to the 2001 conviction still exist. The dispositive question remains whether the defective conditions that led to Respondent’s and rape of his minor half-sisters and his designation as a level three sex offender sexual abuse continue to exist to the extent that “the nature of the direct abuse or neglect, notably its duration, the circumstances surrounding its commission and whether, on the whole, it can be said to evidence fundamental flaws in the respondent’s understanding of the duties of parenthood’ ” are sufficient to serve as a basis for this court’s finding of derivative abuse and/or neglect. A finding of derivative neglect is warranted where the evidence establishes that “[t]he abuse by respondent demonstrates such an impaired level of parental judgment as to create substantial risk of harm for any child in his care’. Further, such a finding is justified where the abuse or neglect was repeated, was perpetrated on multiple victims or was accompanied by evidence that other children were nearby when the abuse occurred.
Based on the court’s finding that the testimony of the child was not credible, the court finds that Petitioner ACS has not demonstrated by a preponderance of evidence that the sexual offenses committed by Respondent in 2001 were repeated, nor has ACS presented any evidence that Respondent has harmed his daughters. To warrant a derivative finding in this matter, ACS must demonstrate that Respondent’s 2001 conviction is “a reliable indicator” that the subject children’s “physical, mental or emotional condition is in imminent danger of becoming impaired”. However, ACS has not offered proof of “actual (or imminent danger of) physical, emotional or mental impairment” to the children nor shown that such danger is “near or impending, not merely possible,” nor has it established “a link or causal connection between the basis for the neglect petition and the circumstances that allegedly produce the child’s impairment or imminent danger of impairment”. ACS has established the fact of Respondent’s conviction and status as a level three sex offender but these facts by themselves do not establish a presumption that he poses a danger to his children. Arson was not a part of this.
Accordingly, the court finds that Petitioner ACS has failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence derivative neglect or abuse by Respondent as to the subject children, and dismisses the petitions.