Foster parents can fully participate in court hearings, state Supreme Court rules

Foster parents are allowed to fully participate in court hearings about whether to terminate biological parents' rights, the Colorado Supreme Court has ruled. The ruling comes out of a case involving a young boy in Montezuma County, who went into foster care after suffering repeated abuse while in the care of his parents. One lawyer called it "one of the most egregious cases I've ever seen."

The case started more than five years ago, when the Montezuma County Department of Human Services got a report of a four-month-old boy with blood in his mouth. The boy's parents suggested his grandmother caused the injury, according to court documents. They were advised not to leave the infant alone with her, and that was that.

But soon, the boy was in the emergency room with a lacerated tongue. And then a bruised cheek. And then an injured elbow. Each time, the parents had an explanation for the injuries. It wasn't until the boy was seven months old and showed up to the ER with more bruises on his face, lips and gums that human services put him in foster care. When an orthopedic surgeon subsequently examined the boy, the doctor found eleven fractures in various stages of healing that were consistent with child abuse.

The department of human services set up a treatment plan that required the biological parents to attend parenting classes and couples counseling, and to find stable jobs and housing. But they struggled to comply. The parents fought with each other and missed therapy and visits with the boy. When they did take him overnight, the foster parents expressed concerns about how well the biological parents were caring for him.

The boy's guardian ad litem, an attorney appointed to represent his best interests, filed a court motion in 2009 to suspend visits between the boy and his parents -- and eventually to terminate their parental rights altogether. The foster parents intervened in the case, saying that they were concerned about the child's safety, among other issues. They retained an attorney, who gave statements and questioned witnesses at the termination hearing. In February 2010, a trial court terminated the biological parents' rights.

But the parents and the Montezuma County Department of Human Services thought the foster parents' robust participation in the termination hearing was improper, and they appealed the trial court's ruling. In a split opinion, an appeals court agreed. It reversed the ruling with regard to boy's mother, but not the boy's father.

In 2011, the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center asked the Colorado Supreme Court to review the appellate ruling. At a hearing in June 2012, attorneys for the county and the biological parents argued that while foster parents should be allowed to testify about a child at hearings, they shouldn't be allowed to hire attorneys and ask questions. Allowing foster parents to become parties in the case sets up a custody battle, they said.

But Tim Eirich, who represented the foster parents, said intervention isn't about custody. He quoted the trial judge when he said, "The important thing is that we get a full disclosure of all of the facts." Intervention helps make that possible, he argued.

In a ruling dated February 25 (and on view below), the Supreme Court agreed. "Foster parents are often uniquely positioned to provide a juvenile court with the most up-to-date status of the child and the child's well-being," the justices wrote.

The high court affirmed the appellate court's decision with regard to the father, but reversed its decision with respect to the mother -- meaning the justices ruled that both biological parents should lose their parental rights. The case will now be sent back to the trial court, which will determine a permanent placement for the boy.

"This is a very progressive opinion that recognizes the complexity of the child welfare system," Eirich says. In cases where a foster parent, who is raising a child seven days a week, disagrees with the opinion of a caseworker who sees the child once a month, that foster parent should be allowed to fully participate in court hearings, he says.

"It's not just a big decision for foster parents," says Eirich, who formerly worked for the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center and is now in private practice. "It's also a favorable decision for foster children and the child welfare system as a whole."

Continue to read the Supreme Court's ruling.

A.M. v. A.C. and N.M. and Colorado

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Fetus = person? District court judges have come to different conclusions."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
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