There’s a saying among law school professors that “bad facts make bad law”. It’s overused and trite, but sometimes it’s the only way to explain a legal ruling that if applied in most circumstances would lead to undesirable results, but in a particular situation is the best justice the bench can administer.
It has long been held that placement of children into permanent, safe homes is a public policy goal of profound importance. (§19-5-216 C.R.S., §16-5-110 C.R.S, People in Interest of C.A.K., 652 P.2d 603 (Colo. 1982). A conflict frequently arises, however, when the child’s interest in a stable and loving home environment conflicts with a parent’s interest in preserving the privacy and integrity of the family unit. Colorado statutes make every effort to balance these interests and ensure the due process rights of biological parents are protected in adoption proceedings. These protections are grounded in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which has been recognized as affording parents a “fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody and control of their children.” (Troxel v. Granville, 530 US 57 (2000).
Part of the statutory balancing scheme in Colorado law involves certain time restrictions within which a biological parent must raise any objection to the termination of his or her parental rights. Without bright line limitations, adoptive childrens’ relationships with their adoptive families would be perpetually at risk. Specifically, §19-5-105(4) C.R.S. establishes a deadline of ninety days for vacating a relinquishment or termination order and CRCP Rule 60(b) requires that challenges to a judgment obtained by fraud must be made within a six month period or at least within a “reasonable time” if the judgment is itself is void.
What happens, however, when a biological father is purposely excluded from the termination proceedings as a result of the mother’s deliberate and intentional deceit? This is precisely what happened in the recent Court of Appeals case In re C.L.S., 10 CA 0529 (Colo. App. 2011).
The mother in this case perpetrated a fraud of immense consequence. First, she wrote to the biological father and told him that the child she was carrying died. She then proceeded to deceive the Lutheran Family Services of Colorado and the District Court in Larimer County by claiming she was the victim of a rape and didn’t know who the father was. After the child had been relinquished and adopted, she decided to inform the child’s father by text message that the child was not in fact deceased, but rather had been adopted. At this point, the father began legal proceedings to set aside the adoption.
The Larimer County District Court denied father’s motion to vacate the termination of parental rights, and the subsequent adoption, finding that his motion was time barred by CRCP Rule 60(b) and §19-5-105(4) CRS. The father’s constitutional due process rights were not addressed. The district court also found that even if father’s motion had been timely filed, it would not be in the child’s best interests to vacate the termination order “which would effectively vacate the adoption, would likely cause life-long emotional and psychological harm for the child.” However, this conclusion was reached without holding an evidentiary hearing.
On appeal, the three Judge panel ruled in favor of the father (no dissent), finding that the judgment terminating his parental rights by default was void. §19-5-105(4) C.R.S. provides that other than by appeal, the only permissible basis for challenging a termination order is “fraud upon the court or fraud upon a party” and that such an order cannot be challenged on any basis, including fraud, more than ninety days after the order has been entered (emphasis added). However, the appellate court reaffirmed the preeminency of constitutional protections over statutory restrictions, citing White v. Davis, 163 Colo. 122, (1967) (“the requirements of due process of law under both the United States and Colorado Constitutions take precedence over statutory enactments”).
Going further, the Court held that not even the limitations of C.R.C.P. Rule 60(b)(3) governing relief from a void judgment would be applied. Reasoning that since a void judgment is a “complete nullity”, the court determined that the “reasonable time” deadline does not apply to a motion under C.R.C.P. Rule 60(b)(3). Thus, in theory, the Court’s ruling would permit a parent whose due process rights were violated in a termination proceeding to seek relief from that Order at any point in time thereafter.
And so, this case returns to the District Court, to determine the child’s best interests, taking into consideration the father’s fundamental liberty interest in parenting his child, while also noting that a parent’s due process rights are subject to the power of the state to act in the child’s best interests. People in Interest of A.M.D., 648 P.2d 625, 632-35 (Colo. 1982)
The tragedy of this case is a child, who has lived with her adoptive parents since birth, and is now three years old. She has established a critical emotional bond with her adoptive parents and has no familiarity with the man who is her father. Although the parties have been engaged in extensive litigation, one can only hope that at this point they may consider collaborative solutions that will enable the child to enjoy stable and continuing bonds with her adoptive parents while establishing a new connection with her biological father.