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Intervention by foster parents in hearing to terminate parental rights

In the case of A.M. v. A.C., the Supreme Court of Colorado held that foster parents meeting the requirements under Colorado law may fully participate in proceedings for the involuntary termination of the parental rights of the parents. Timothy J. Eirich of Grob & Eirich, LLC, was both the trial attorney and lead appellate attorney for the foster parent intervenors.

A court order terminating parental rights severs the legal parent-child relationship. The child is then legally available to be placed for adoption.

Background and procedural history

After the parents’ infant son received emergency room treatment on multiple occasions in a short time span for several unexplained injuries, the Department of Social Services in Montezuma County conducted an investigation. X-rays showed numerous other fractures. The Department obtained temporary custody in dependency and neglect proceedings, and placed the child in foster care with the foster parents.

The foster parents requested permission to intervene in the case after the child had been in their care for approximately 15 months, asserting that they had specific knowledge about the child and what was in his best interest. The trial court approved the intervention over objections by the biological mother and also denied the mother’s request to remove the child from the foster parents’ care on the basis that a conflict of interest arose due to the foster parents’ wishes to adopt the child.

The guardian ad litem subsequently requested termination of the parental rights of both parents. At the termination hearing, the foster parents were permitted to exercise advocacy rights as full party intervenors. Their counsel submitted an opening statement, closing arguments, entered objections to evidence and cross-examined witnesses. The court issued a ruling terminating the parental rights of both parents.

On appeal, the court of appeals held that the trial court had erred in permitting the foster parents to participate fully in the termination hearing and reinstated the parental rights of the mother, but upheld the ruling regarding the father, stating that the error was harmless in his case because of strong evidence warranting the termination.

The Supreme Court’s decision

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the matter. The Court reversed the appellate court’s ruling reinstating the mother’s parental rights and affirmed the ruling terminating the father’s rights.

The Court first examined the provisions of the Colorado Children’s Codes which give the foster parents of a child adjudicated as dependent and neglected the right to intervene where the child has been in their care for more than three months and they possess knowledge or information relating to the care and protection of the child. The Court wrote that the plain meaning of the term “intervene” refers to a procedural mechanism allowing an outsider or stranger to become a party to court proceedings and present legal claims and defenses.

Intervenors generally have the same rights as all other parties, said the Court, and the statute did not place any limits on participation by intervenors except restricting intervention until after a court has made an adjudication of dependency or neglect. The Court also found that foster parent intervention is not limited to the dispositional hearing.

The Court also rejected an argument by the parents and the Department that the involvement of foster parents in a termination hearing should be limited to testifying as a witness providing information about a child in their care, and that the parents’ procedural rights to due process were violated when the foster parents were permitted to exercise the same rights as all other parties.

Individuals facing adoption or family law matters are urged to consult with a competent attorney, experienced in such matters for the protection of their legal rights.