July 17, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: ADA Not Defense to Termination of Parental Rights

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People in Interest of C.Z. on Thursday, June 18, 2015.

Dependency and Neglect—Termination of Parent–Child Legal Relationship—Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Weld County Department of Human Services (Department) filed a dependency and neglect petition after mother was unwilling to follow through with treatment to address her multiple mental health diagnoses. The Department also asserted father had been diagnosed with severe depression. The court granted the Department custody of the child.

The court then adjudicated the child dependent and neglected and approved a treatment plan for the parents. After receiving the psychological and parent–child interactional evaluations, the Department moved to terminate the parents’ parental rights, asserting that no appropriate treatment plan could be devised to address their unfitness. Following a contested hearing, the court terminated the parent–child legal relationship.

On appeal, mother and father argued that CRS § 19-3-604(1)(b)(I) conflicts with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because it allows the court to terminate parental rights of disabled parents without requiring the Department to provide them the rehabilitative services that other parents receive. The Court first addressed the Department’s assertion that the parents’ contention should be summarily rejected because the ADA is not a defense to termination of parental rights. Title II of the ADA does not limit the court’s authority to terminate a disabled parent’s rights when the parent is unable to meet his or her child’s needs. However, it does apply to the provision of assessments, treatment, and other services that a department provides to parents through a dependency and neglect proceeding before a termination hearing. Accordingly, the issue in this case is whether CRS § 19-3-604(1)(b)(I) is preempted by the ADA.

The type of preemption at issue here was conflict preemption, which voids a state statute that conflicts with a valid federal law. A conflict is found when compliance with both federal and state regulations is a physical impossibility or when the state law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and full execution of the purposes and objectives of federal law.

CRS § 19-3-604(1)(b)(I) permits termination of parental rights of mentally impaired parents without requiring the Department to provide them treatment plans. However, the Court held this does not conflict with the ADA’s requirement that a public entity make reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with disabilities. If rehabilitative services can be offered to address a parent’s mental impairment so that he or she can meet the child’s needs within a reasonable time, then termination is not authorized under CRS § 19-3-604(1)(b)(I). A finding that no treatment plan can be devised to address a parent’s unfitness caused by mental impairment is the equivalent of a determination that no reasonable accommodations can be made to account for the parent’s disability under the ADA.

In determining whether reasonable accommodations can be made to address the parent’s disability under the ADA, the court’s paramount concern is the child’s health and safety. The ADA does not protect an individual who poses a safety risk to others. The Court concluded that the trial court’s findings here satisfy the ADA requirement that no reasonable accommodations could be made to enable mother and father to participate in an appropriate treatment plan and rehabilitative services.

Father also argued the termination of his parental rights solely on the basis of his mental disability violated his right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court disagreed. Parents who are unable to meet their children’s needs within a reasonable time, whether because of mental impairment or another statutorily enumerated reason, are not similarly situated to parents who have the ability to become fit within a reasonable time. The judgment was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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