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In re J.W.

December 04, 2003


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia Family Court (N-127-00) (Hon. Nan R. Shuker, Trial Judge)

Before Steadman, Ruiz and Glickman, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ruiz, Associate Judge

Argued September 25, 2003

This appeal arises from a determination by the Superior Court that two year-old J.W. is neglected within the meaning of D.C. Code § 16-2301 (9)(E) (2001) because her biological father, V.W ., sexually abused her four year-old half sister, H.T. The neglect proceeding against V.W. followed a separate stipulation of neglect entered into by J.W.'s mother, S.T., as well as a jury trial in which V.W. was criminally convicted of sexually abusing H.T. On appeal, V.W. argues that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to enter the neglect findings against him because the court earlier had found J.W. neglected under the terms of S.T.'s stipulation. He also complains that he was denied due process of law because he was forced to refrain from testifying in the neglect case to preserve his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination in the criminal case, which was - and still is - pending appeal. We affirm the trial court's neglect determination because we see no cognizable error in the proceedings below.


V.W. and S.T. shared a home in the District of Columbia together with their biological children, J.W. and D.W., and with H.T., S.T.'s daughter from a prior re lationship. H.T. was born on June 22, 1995; J.W. and D.W. were born on June 14, 1998 and April 30, 1999, respectively. Living together as a fam ily, V.W . undertook the responsibilities of fatherhood for all three children. *fn1

In January of 1999, the children's maternal grandmother placed an anonymous phone call to the Safe Hotline in order to report that her granddaughter, H.T., had been sexually abused by V.W. Following an investigation by the Metropolitan Police Department, during which H.T. reported that V.W . had "fondled, sodomized, and digitally penetrated her," the government filed a neglect petition, alleging that both V.W. and S.T. neglected the three children (H.T., J.W. and D.W.). In addition, criminal charges were filed against V.W. for his sexual abuse of H.T. Following a jury trial, V.W . was convicted of two counts of first degree child sexual abuse and two counts of second degree child sexual abuse. As a consequence, V.W. was sentenced to a minimum of thirty years of imprisonment.

Thereafter, on October 31, 2000, S.T. stipulated that she had neglected each of her three children by failing to protect them from V.W. The stipulation included several factual admissions: (1) H.T. reported to S.T. that V.W. masturbated while watching pornographic videos in H.T.'s presence; (2) although S.T. threw out all of V.W.'s pornographic material, she later allowed V.W. to bring new pornographic material back into the home; (3) S.T. knew that V.W. drinks alcohol almost daily and smokes cannabis; (4) S.T. knew that V.W . previously had been charged with indecent acts involving a minor; (5) S.T. left the children alone with V.W.; and (6) H.T. had been sexually abused by V.W., although S.T. was unaware of it at the time. The trial court accepted the stipulation and entered neglect findings under D.C. Code § 16-2301 (9)(B). *fn2

V.W. did not similarly admit to neglecting the children, choosing instead to appeal his criminal conviction and pursue a hearing on the neglect petition. Importantly, V.W.'s criminal appeal was pending at the time of the hearing. *fn3 V.W. initially moved to dismiss the neglect petition on the ground that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to enter the neglect findings against him because the court earlier had found the children neglected under the terms of S.T.'s stipulation. *fn4 After the court denied the motion, V.W. asked to proceed by stipulated trial. *fn5 The court granted the request, and V.W. accordingly stipulated that the government's evidence would include proof of his paternity of b oth J.W. and D.W., and that he acted as a father for H.T . V.W. additionally stipulated that the government would enter into evidence his August 8, 2000 conviction for child sexual abuse involving H.T. Based on these stipulations and judicial notice of the criminal conviction, the court found that H.T. was neglected within the meaning of D.C. Code § 16-2301 (9)(A). *fn6 Drawing the inference that similarly situated siblings of abused children remained in imminent danger, the court further found that J.W. and D.W. were neglected within the meaning of D.C. Code § 16-2301 (9)(E). *fn7 On February 5, 2002, the court entered a disposition order conditionally releasing J.W. to her mother, S.T. V.W. now appeals this order. *fn8


Appellant challenges the trial court's subject matter jurisdiction. He maintains that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to enter the neglect finding against him because the court already had found J.W. neglected according to the terms of S.T.'s stipu lation.

"Subject matter jurisdiction concerns the court's authority to adjudicate the type of controversy presented by the case under consideration." In re R.L., 590 A.2d 123, 128 (D.C. 1991) (citing 1 RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF JUDGMENTS § 11 (1982)). Like all questions of law, we review questions concerning the trial court's jurisdiction de novo. See Martin v. District of Columbia Courts, 753 A.2d 987, 991 (D.C. 2000).

We begin with the fundamental premise that the Family Court of the Superior Court has original jurisdiction over child neglect proceedings. See D.C. CODE § 11-1101 (13) (2001 & Supp. 2003). Once obtained, the division's jurisdiction is preserved until the child becomes twenty-one years of age, unless otherwise terminated by th e court. See D.C. CODE § 16-2303 (2001). We have recognized the court's broad authority in civil neglect proceedings to issue a wide variety of remedial orders, including, inter alia, transfer of legal custody, see D.C. CODE § 16-2320 (a)(3) (2001), termination o f parental rights, see § 16-2320 (a)(6), and "such other disposition as is not prohibited by law and as the Division deem s to be in the best interest of the child." § 16-2320 (a)(5); see generally In re T.W., 732 A.2d 254, 258-59 (D.C. 1999) (acknowledging the court's expansive authority). "Our child neglect statute vests the trial court with considerable latitude in crafting a disposition designed to reunite the family while safeguarding the well-being of the ch ild." In re S.L .E., 677 A.2d 514, 522 (D.C. 1996) (internal quotation omitted). Because the civil neglect statute is a remedial enactment designed to protect the best interests of children, we have liberally construed the statute to enable the court to carry out its obligations as parens patriae. See In re S.G., 581 A.2d 771, 778 (D.C. 1990). Thus, we have permitted the trial court to extend a neglected child's commitment with the Department of Human Services even though the existing commitment order has expired. See In re R.L., 590 A.2d at 128-29 (rejecting the argument that the court's jurisdiction lapses with the government's failure to file a motion to extend commitment or with the expiration of existing commitment order); In re O.A., 548 A.2d 499, 501 (D.C. 1988) (holding that trial court's jurisdiction does not lapse with expiration of existing commitment order).

Consistent with these prior decisions, we construe the statutory scheme in aid of its remedial purpose and conclude that the trial court's jurisdiction is sufficiently durable to allow full resolution of all the neglect allegations even after the child has been found to be neglected based on only the allegations with respect to one parent. In the present case, the government filed a single neglect petition alleging that both V.W. and S.T. abused the children. V.W. and S.T. thereafter made separate strategic decisions to take different procedural paths, one stipulating to neglect and the other pursuing a stipulated trial. We see no reason why this tactical divergence should affect the trial court's subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate the allegations made in the original petition. In the related context of personal jurisdiction, we have said that "[t]he trial court . . . necessarily retains jurisdiction over the custody of the children as long as the underlying neglect petition has not been finally resolved, either by restoration of physical custody of the children to the ...

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