Little "A.M." (courts use only the child's initials in cases)
had been taken by his parents to the emergency room a number of times
in the span of three months, including for a lacerated tongue, a bruised
cheek and a fractured elbow. X-rays revealed other fractures to the baby's
ribs, leg bone and cheekbone. The County Department of Social Services
was notified by the doctors and immediately placed the baby in foster
care with a married couple, and then filed a petition with the court "in
dependency and neglect "of the child.
A dependency and neglect proceeding is started when a local county department
of human services or a local law enforcement agency is made aware of suspected
child abuse or neglect. After the local agency takes immediate steps to
protect the child, it gives notice to the local juvenile court which may
authorize the filing of a petition in dependency and neglect. This is
the proceeding that may condition, or terminate, the rights of a parent
to custody of his or her child. The petition in dependency and neglect
is filed by the State of Colorado, which also notifies the parents of
the petition and their rights in the proceeding. Parents who are subject
to losing custody of their child for neglect or abuse have a right to
an attorney, as well as to a jury trial. The State must prove the allegations
of neglect or abuse by a standard of whether the allegations are more
probably true than not. If the court hearing the case determines that
the allegations are proved, then the state child services will protect
the child and will determine what rehabilitation the parent(s) may require
in order to safely parent the child again. The court will order that the
parents comply with a treatment plan to provide services to the family,
to prevent unnecessary out-of-home placement of the child and, ultimately,
to facilitate reunification of the child and family. Failure of one or
both parents to comply with the treatment plan may provide grounds for
the State to ask the court to terminate a parent's rights to the child.
At no point should the child's best interests be put on the back burner,
or be set aside of what the parents want.
At the hearing to determine whether the child could be returned to the
parents, Colorado law provides that those who have had the child in their
care for more than three months, and have knowledge about the care of
the child, can intervene in the court proceedings. In A.M.'s case,
his foster parents asked the court to let them intervene in this hearing
because not only did they have pertinent information about the child to
share with the court, but they also admittedly wanted the parents'
rights to the child terminated so that they could adopt A.M.
The law does not make it easy for a court to terminate parental rights,
and can only be done so through solid, inarguable evidence and accounts.
The parents may seek legal counsel, provided by the State if they cannot
afford their own attorney. At the hearing, witnesses will be treated as
if it is a criminal court case, meaning cross-examinations and new witnesses
testimonies may be utilized by either party. Ultimately, the parent's
relationship with the child will only be ended if all other alternatives
have been explored and deemed unworthy of the solution required.
But Colorado law also recognizes that foster parents of the child have
important information that must be provided to the court such as the current
status of the child and how the child's well-being would be affected
by return to the parent. In a recent decision by the Colorado Supreme
Court, the justices held for the first time that foster parents have the
right not only to give testimony about the current state of the child,
but also to fully participate in the hearing to terminate parental rights,
including cross-examining witnesses who are testifying in favor of the
parents' custody, but also calling their own witnesses to show that
it is not in the best interests of the child to return the child to the
child's parents, as well as presenting written and oral arguments
to the court for that position.
We don't know the outcome of A.M.'s story—as this kind of
information remains private to protect the child. We do know that Colorado
now recognizes that foster parents form lasting bonds with children in
their care and that foster parents have rights to fight for what the foster
parents see as the best interest of the child they have grown to love.