June 27, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Where Father Acquitted of Underlying Sexual Abuse Charges, Juvenile Court Erred in Terminating Parental Rights

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People in Interest of L.M. on Thursday, April 19, 2018.

Dependency and Neglect—Juvenile Court—Termination of Parent-Child Legal Relationship.

The juvenile court found by a preponderance of the evidence that father had sexually abused L.M. and that M.M. was suffering secondary trauma as a result of the abuse. The court adjudicated L.M. and M.M. dependent and neglected. The court granted temporary custody to mother and prohibited father from having any contact with the children during the pendency of the case.

Father’s treatment plan was predicated on his guilt, but he was later acquitted in the criminal case. The juvenile court could not find that the assault allegations had been established by clear and convincing evidence and further concluded that it could not discount the possibility that no abuse occurred. Even so, the juvenile court terminated father’s parental rights, finding there were no less drastic alternatives because the children continued to experience trauma specific to father, which he did not recognize.

On appeal, father challenged the finding that there were no less drastic alternatives to terminating his parental rights. When considering termination under C.R.S. § 19-3-604(1)(c), the court must also consider and eliminate less drastic alternatives. The determination of whether there is a less drastic alternative to termination is influenced by a parent’s fitness to care for his or her child. Here, there is no indication in the record that father was offered treatment or a path to becoming a fit parent other than to acknowledge sexual abuse of L.M. It was error to terminate his parental rights.

Although not raised on appeal, the court of appeals also determined that the juvenile court failed to make the required inquiry of father under the Indian Child Welfare Act.

The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded with instructions that before considering termination of parental rights, the court must adopt an appropriate treatment plan under C.R.S. § 19-3-508(1)(e)(I) that relates to the children’s trauma and is reasonably calculated to render father a fit parent. If the court again considers termination of father’s parental rights, it must confirm whether he knows or has reason to know or believe that the children are Indian children.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

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