August 24, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Juvenile Court Must Make Reasonable Accommodations Under ADA in Crafting Treatment Plan for Parents

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People in Interest of S.K. on Thursday, March 7, 2019.

Americans with Disabilities Act—Reasonable Accommodations—Termination of Parental Rights—Dependency and Neglect—Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The Gunnison County Department of Health and Human Services (Department) received reports that S.K. was failing to thrive. The Department initiated a dependency and neglect case and took custody of S.K.

The parents stipulated that the child was dependent and neglected because she was without proper care through no fault of their own. The juvenile court adopted treatment plans for the parents and appointed a guardian ad litem for each parent. Ultimately, the Department moved to terminate the legal relationships between S.K. and the parents. Mother and father filed a joint motion requesting (1) a finding that the Department had not made reasonable efforts to reunify them with the child, (2) dismissal of the termination motion, and (3) amendment of the treatment plans to provide reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Following a hearing, the court rejected the parents’ arguments and terminated their parental rights.

On appeal, the parents challenged the appropriateness of their treatment plans, the efforts the Department made to reunify them with the child, and the extent of reasonable accommodations required under the ADA. An appropriate treatment plan is one that is approved by the court and is reasonably calculated to render the parent fit to provide adequate parenting within a reasonable time and that relates to the child’s needs. When evaluating parental unfitness and the likelihood that a parent’s conduct or condition will change, the court must consider whether reasonable efforts have been unable to rehabilitate the parent. The reasonable efforts standard is met when services are provided in accordance with C.R.S. § 19-3-208, including appropriate assessments and referrals and mental health and substance abuse treatment services, if funding is available. Title II of the ADA prohibits a public entity from discriminating against a qualified individual with disabilities in the provision or operation of public services, programs, or activities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 applies the same requirement to entities that receive federal financial assistance. There is an affirmative duty placed on a public entity to make reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with disabilities.

Whether a parent is a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA is a case-by-case determination. When a parent in a dependency and neglect proceeding has a disability under the ADA, the Department and the juvenile court must make reasonable accommodations for the parent’s disability in the treatment plan and the rehabilitative services provided. When deciding whether to terminate parental rights, the juvenile court must consider whether reasonable accommodations were made for the parent’s disability in determining whether the parent’s treatment plan was appropriate and reasonable efforts were made to rehabilitate the parent. The juvenile court’s primary concern is the child’s health and safety.

Here, it was undisputed that both parents had serious intellectual and developmental disabilities. Though these were disabilities under the ADA, the ADA does not restrict a court from terminating parental rights when the parent, even after reasonable accommodations, is unable to meet his child’s needs. The juvenile court considered the many services offered to the parents in concluding that the Department provided services that reasonably accommodated the parent’s limitations; the parents’ treatment plans were appropriate; and the Department made reasonable efforts to rehabilitate the parents. These conclusions were supported by the record.

Mother contended that the juvenile court erred in finding that she was an unfit parent and her conduct or condition was unlikely to change in a reasonable time. The record evidence, including the opinions of professional evaluators, did not support this argument. The juvenile court did not err in concluding that mother was an unfit parent and her conduct or condition was unlikely to change in a reasonable time.

Father argued that placing the child with the paternal grandmother was a less drastic alternative to termination. The record showed that a home study resulted in the paternal grandmother being denied placement for the child and otherwise supported the juvenile court’s determination that there was no less drastic alternative to termination.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

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