In first opinion from latest Supreme Courtroom member, justices overturn appellate court docket custody ruling | Courts
In a case involving a court being able to terminate a parent’s rights over their child, the Colorado Supreme Court overturned an appeal on Monday, reiterating that judges must consider what is in the child’s best interests .
The judges rejected the argument that the prejudices of individual judges could affect their beliefs about the well-being of the children and thus impair the constitutional rights of the parents. Instead, the court has expressed confidence in the process of ending parental rights and stated that the evidence must be clear and convincing.
The opinion was the first from the newest court member, Judge Maria E. Berkenkotter, who joined in January. Berkenkotter, a judge appointed by Governor Jared Polis, was previously the District Judge and Chief Justice in Boulder County.
In this case, a child identified as AM tested positive for heroin at birth, as did both parents. Larimer District Court judge Gregory M. Lammons presented the parents with a corrective plan, but trials eventually began to end their parental rights, with the district claiming they had failed to respect their treatment.
Lammons declined to quit, and the child’s aunt adopted her on the grounds that the option would provide the girl with security and stability. However, the law stipulated that “no less drastic alternatives” would be available. According to Lammons, there was a less drastic assumption: a division of parental responsibility, essentially custody, between the aunt, who would not, in itself, end parental rights.
On appeal, a three-person appeal panel sent the case back to Lammons for reconsideration of the child’s best interests. He then turned around and terminated parental rights, which was better for AM given the “slightly higher likelihood of permanence”.
AM’s father appealed again, and another appeals court ruled 2-1 for another reversal. The majority, wrote Judge Ted C. Tow III, believed Lammons made the right decision the first time. If the assignment of parental rights to the aunt would “adequately” meet the needs of the child, “termination must be denied”.
During a hearing in the Supreme Court, an attorney for AM noted the father’s concern about implicit bias in judicial decision-making, but believed that introducing an undefined standard of adequacy would not diminish the subjectivity involved.
“Essentially, if we were to adopt a reasonable standard, the juvenile court could be put in a position where there are two different options in a given case and I will choose the one that it is not in the child’s best interests, but it is good enough, “noted Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr.” Although the parents were given the opportunity to complete a treatment plan and failed, despite being found to be unfit.
Berkenkotter stated, according to the Supreme Court, that legal proceedings can end parents’ rights if parents are unfit and their behavior is unlikely to change within a reasonable time. She asked the majority of the Appellate Body to deviate from the previous cases cited as evidence – cases where the best interests of the child were used as the measure, rather than just adequacy.
“[I]A proposed alternative to dismissal should be seen as feasible; it must not only be reasonable but also be in the best interests of the child. None of these cases suggest, “wrote Berkenkotter,” that “best” means appropriate. “
Regarding the father’s argument about judges’ subjective decisions affecting his constitutional rights as a parent, the Supreme Court acknowledged that both parents and children in general have an interest in maintaining family relationships.
“However, as soon as the court is convinced that the state has determined a parent’s poor fitness, the interests of the child and the parent diverge. At this point, the child’s separate interests outweigh the risk of the parent-child relationship failing to end, ”she explained.
The judges overturned the decision of the majority of the appeals court.
Following the ruling, the Office of Respondent Parents’ Counsel, the government agency that represents parents in need, believed that adopting an “adequacy” standard would benefit children from black and Latin American families who are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system Cases can suffer from “cultural misunderstandings”.
“Ending parental rights is akin to a civil death penalty, as most parents who have lost their children to government interference would attest,” the office wrote. “Still, the Colorado courts continue to allow the courts to use amorphous and vague best-interest standards that do not adequately protect or introduce prejudice into the system, which disproportionately affects color communities and families affected by poverty.”
The case is people in AM’s interest