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People v. M.L.

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

May 23, 2016

The People of the State of Colorado, In the Interest of Minor Children: J.G., J.P., S.L., and C.L.,
v.
M.L. Respondent and J.G., J.P., S.L., and C.L., Children, by and through their Guardian ad Litem, Petitioners

         Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals Court of Appeals Case No. 14CA595

          Attorney for Petitioner The People of the State of Colorado: Dan Slater Law Daniel B. Slater Cañon City, Colorado

          Attorney for J.G, J.P., S.L., and C.L., Children, by and through their Guardian ad Litem: Anna N. H. Ulrich, Attorney at Law, L.L.C. Anna N. H. Ulrich Salida, Colorado

          Attorney for Respondent M.L.: Davide C. Migliaccio, Attorney at Law Davide C. Migliaccio Colorado Springs, Colorado

          Attorney for Amicus Curiae Colorado Office of the Child's Representative: Colorado Office of the Child's Representative Sheri Danz Denver, Colorado

          JUSTICE GABRIEL dissents, and JUSTICE HOOD joins in the dissent.

          OPINION

          BOATRIGHT JUSTICE.

         ¶1 We granted certiorari in this case to resolve two points: (1) whether determination of a child's status as dependent or neglected under the injurious environment provision of Article 3 of the Colorado Children's Code must take into account each parent's actions or failures to act, and (2) whether findings as to parental fault are required to adjudicate a child dependent or neglected under the same provision. See § 19-3-102(1), C.R.S. (2015). Mother ("M.L.") appealed a jury's finding that the environment of four of her five children was injurious to their welfare and the trial court's resulting adjudication that the children were dependent or neglected. M.L. argued that the trial court's jury instructions improperly permitted the jury to determine the status of the children without evaluating each parent's conduct and circumstances. Relying on Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000), the court of appeals agreed with M.L. and reversed the trial court's adjudication. People in Interest of J.G., 2014 COA 182, ¶¶ 1, 23, ___ P.3d ___. We now reverse the court of appeals.

         ¶2 We hold that Troxel's due process requirements do not necessitate that the State prove that both parents lack the availability, ability, and willingness to provide reasonable parental care before a child may be adjudicated dependent or neglected under the injurious environment provision. Additionally, we hold that neither the plain language of the dependency or neglect statute nor Troxel requires the State to prove parental fault when adjudicating a child dependent or neglected under the injurious environment provision. Hence, we conclude that the trial court's jury instructions were consistent with the plain language of the statute and the trial court did not err when it allowed the jury to find that the children's environment was injurious to their welfare without first requiring the jury to make findings of parental fault. Therefore, we reverse the court of appeals' judgment and remand this case to that court to address M.L.'s remaining issue on appeal.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶3 M.L. is the mother of five children, J.W.G., J.G., J.P., C.L., and S.L., four of whom are interested parties in this dependency or neglect appeal. The events leading to this case began when S.L. informed her mother and father ("B.L.") that J.W.G., her half-brother, had touched her in a sexual manner while she was trying to sleep. The parents immediately contacted law enforcement officials, who discovered during their investigation that J.W.G. had also inappropriately touched another sister, J.P. As a result, J.W.G. was charged with unlawful sexual contact and sexual assault on a child. Initially, J.W.G. remained in the home while his siblings stayed with family members. Within a week, the Fremont County Department of Human Services ("DHS") placed J.W.G. in an offense-specific foster home, and the remaining children returned to the family home.

         ¶4 In response to J.W.G.'s actions, the State filed a dependency or neglect petition concerning all of the children pursuant to section 19-3-502, C.R.S. (2015). The petition named M.L. and the children's fathers as respondents.[1] In pertinent part, it alleged that the children were dependent or neglected under three statutory bases: (1) the children lacked proper parental care, § 19-3-102(1)(b); (2) the children were homeless, without proper care, or not domiciled with a parent through no fault of the parent, § 19-3-102(1)(e); and (3) the children's environment was injurious to their welfare, § 19-3-102(1)(c). M.L. and G.G., J.W.G.'s father, admitted the allegations in the dependency or neglect petition as to J.W.G., but M.L. and the fathers of the remaining four children denied the allegations as to those children and requested a jury trial. The case thus proceeded to jury trial.

         ¶5 At the conclusion of the evidence, the State proffered several jury instructions to which M.L. and the fathers objected. Specifically, M.L. objected to the questions in Jury Instruction 17, the State's proffered instruction regarding the injurious environment provision. Jury Instruction 17 (and a corresponding special verdict form) included a total of thirteen questions, twelve of which asked the jury to decide whether each child was dependent or neglected based on one of the three statutory bases alleged by the State. In objecting, M.L. argued that the trial court should require the jury to find that the children's environment was injurious to their welfare due to the actions or omissions of the parents, as per the pattern instruction for the injurious environment provision. See CJI-Civ. 41:17, Question 4.

         ¶6 The trial court rejected M.L.'s argument and gave the State's proffered instruction, which was consistent with the injurious environment provision's statutory language. See § 19-3-102(1)(c). Notably, it excluded the parental fault language found in the pattern instruction. Therefore, the jury was not required to make findings as to parental fault regarding the State's injurious environment allegation.[2] After the trial court ruled on the disputed jury instructions, the case went to the jury to determine whether each of the four children were dependent or neglected according to the State's evidence.

         ¶7 In reaching its verdicts, the jury responded to the questions in the special verdict form and Instruction 17. Specifically, the jury answered "no" to the questions asking (1) whether the children lacked parental care through the actions or omissions of the parents and (2) whether the children were homeless, without proper care, or not domiciled with their parents through no fault of the parents. But, it responded "yes" to the third question for the children, finding their environment injurious to their welfare. Based on the jury's conclusion that the children's environment was injurious, the court adjudicated the children dependent or neglected and continued the case for a dispositional hearing. At that hearing, the court entered an order adopting a treatment plan and granted legal custody of J.W.G. to DHS. It granted the parents legal custody of the four other children subject to DHS's protective supervision.

         ¶8 M.L. appealed. She argued to the court of appeals that the trial court erred by tendering the jury instructions because they did not require the jurors to make findings as to each parent's fault. Instead, according to M.L., the jury instructions improperly permitted the jurors to find that the children were dependent or neglected based on an injurious environment even where at least one parent was available, able, and willing to provide reasonable parental care.

         ¶9 The court of appeals reversed, citing Troxel.[3] It recognized that "a fit parent has a fundamental right to the care, custody, and control of his or her children, free from state intervention." J.G., ¶ 23. It then held that by failing to require the jury to make findings as to parental fault, the trial court violated the United States Supreme Court's ruling in Troxel that courts must presume that fit parents act in the best interests of their children. Id. In so doing, the court of appeals concluded that a child may not be adjudicated dependent or neglected if the child has at least one parent who can provide reasonable care.

         ¶10 After reaching this holding, the court then determined that Instruction 17 and the special verdict form "misstated the law and misled the jury by suggesting that the children could be deemed to be dependent or neglected without considering, for each child, the actions or omissions of each parent and each parent's availability, ability, and willingness to provide reasonable parental care." Id. at ¶ 31. It agreed with M.L. that Instruction 17 improperly permitted the jury to find that the children's environment was injurious to their welfare without considering the conduct and condition of each parent. Id. at ¶¶ 32–33. The court concluded that the trial court's error in giving Instruction 17 and the special verdict form was prejudicial and required reversal because, if the jury had been properly instructed, then it "might have concluded that the children's environment was not injurious because [M.L] was available, willing, and able to provide reasonable parental care." Id. at ¶ 34.

         ¶11 Both the State and the children's guardian ad litem ("GAL") petitioned for review. We granted certiorari on two issues.[4]

         II. Ability, Availability, and Willingness to Provide Reasonable Parental Care

         ¶12 In the first issue, the State argues that the court of appeals improperly applied Troxel to this case and that in doing so, the court's holding unnecessarily increased the State's burden during the adjudicatory stage of dependency or neglect proceedings. We first examine the statutory due process requirements for the adjudicatory phase of dependency or neglect proceedings. Then, we consider whether Troxel supports the court of appeals' holding that it is improper to adjudicate a child dependent or neglected when, after considering each parent's actions or failures to act, the child has at least one parent who is available, able, and willing to provide reasonable parental care. Contrary to the court of appeals' conclusion, we hold that Troxel's due process requirements do not necessitate that the State prove that both parents lack the availability, ability, or willingness to provide reasonable parental care before a child may be adjudicated dependent or neglected.

         A. Statutory Interpretation

         ¶13 We review questions of law, including the construction of a statute, de novo. People in Interest of S.N., 2014 CO 64, ¶ 5, 329 P.3d 276, 279; A.M. v. A.C., 2013 CO 16, ¶ 8, 296 P.3d 1026, 1030. In construing statutes, we seek to ascertain and give effect to the General Assembly's intent. In re B.B.O., 2012 CO 40, ¶ 6, 277 P.3d 818, 820. To do this, we look to the language of the statute so as to give effect to the plain and ordinary meaning of the General Assembly's words. A.C., ¶ 8, 296 P.3d at 1030. A statute is ambiguous if it is susceptible to multiple interpretations. Id. If the statutory language is unambiguous, then we apply it as written. See State v. Nieto, 993 P.2d 493, 500 (Colo. 2000). We favor interpretations that produce a harmonious reading of the statutory scheme, and we avoid inconsistent constructions. A.C., ¶ 8, 296 P.3d at 1030.

         B. Dependency or Neglect Procedures

         ¶14 Dependency or neglect proceedings are governed by Article 3 of the Colorado Children's Code (the "Children's Code"). See §§ 19-3-100.5 to -703, C.R.S. (2015). These proceedings must follow the procedural process mandated by the Children's Code, which we briefly outline below.

         ¶15 First, if the State suspects that a child may be dependent or neglected, then it must file a petition containing the State's factual allegations under section 19-3-502. A.C., ¶ 12, 296 P.3d at 1030. Next, the parents must receive notice of the petition's substance, as well as the date of any hearing and their right to have an attorney present at that hearing. § 19-3-503. The court then informs the parents of their rights in court, and if the parents contest the allegations contained in the petition and request a trial- either to the court or to a jury-then the State must prove those allegations to the fact-finder by a preponderance of the evidence. A.C., ¶ 12, 296 P.3d at 1030 (citing §§ 19-3-202, -502 to -03; People in Interest of A.M.D., 648 P.2d 625, 641 (Colo. 1982)).

         ¶16 If the State fails to carry its burden, then the court will dismiss the case, vacate all orders with respect to the child, and relinquish its jurisdiction. A.C., ¶ 12 (citing § 19-3-505(6)). But if the State proves the allegations by a preponderance of the evidence, then the court will sustain the petition, after which it may adjudicate the child dependent or neglected. Id. (citing § 19-3-505(7)). "The adjudication represents the court's determination that state intervention is necessary to protect the child and that the family requires rehabilitative services in order to safely parent the child." Id.

         ¶17 If the child is adjudicated dependent or neglected, then the court convenes a dispositional hearing, see § 19-3-508, during which it must order a treatment plan, see § 19-3-507. The treatment plan's purpose "is to provide services to the family, to prevent unnecessary out-of-home placement of the child, and to facilitate reunification of the child and family." A.C., ¶ 14, 296 P.3d at 1031 (citing § 19-3-507(1)(b)). The parents have the right to appeal the court's final disposition regarding the treatment plan. See E.O. v. People, 854 P.2d 797, 801 (Colo. 1993). If the family does not appeal but instead "completes the treatment plan and the court is satisfied the family is no longer in need of services and the children are safe, " then the court dismisses the case and relinquishes jurisdiction. A.C., ¶ 14 (citing § 19-3-604). If the family fails to comply with the treatment plan, then the State or GAL may pursue a variety of options, including alternative permanent placement of the children or even termination of the parent-child relationship in certain circumstances.[5] Id. (citing § 19-3-604(1)(c)); §§ 19-3-508, -702.

         ¶18 We concur with the court of appeals' characterization that the adjudicative process's purpose is to "determine whether the factual allegations in the dependency or neglect petition are supported by a preponderance of the evidence" such that the child's status "warrants intrusive protective or corrective state intervention into the familial relationship." J.G., ¶ 18 (quoting People in Interest of A.M., 786 P.2d 476, 479 (Colo.App. 1989)). With this understanding of dependency or neglect proceedings in mind, we next consider whether the court of appeals erred in applying Troxel to conclude that a child cannot be adjudicated dependent or neglected if at least one parent is available, able, and willing to provide reasonable care.

         C. Troxel's Application

         ¶19 In reversing the trial court's adjudication of dependency or neglect as to each of the four children, the court of appeals relied on Troxel. The court of appeals held that, "because a fit parent has a fundamental right to the care, custody, and control of his or her children, free from state intervention, " a child cannot be dependent or neglected if at least one parent is available, able, and willing to provide reasonable parental care. J.G., ¶ 23. We now consider whether the court of appeals properly relied on Troxel in reaching its holding in this case.

         ¶20 We begin with the bedrock principle that the right to parent one's children is a fundamental liberty interest. See In Interest of Baby A, 2015 CO 72, ¶ 20, 363 P.3d 193, 201 (citing Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651 (1972)). Thus, intervening in "[t]he fundamental liberty interest of natural parents in the care, custody, and management of their child" requires "fundamentally fair procedures." Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 753–54 (1982). Troxel emphasized that statutory procedures must protect parents' due process rights by requiring the State to justify its reasons for interfering with a family. 530 U.S. at 68, 70.

         ¶21 In particular, the Court in Troxel discussed the State's ability to interfere with fit parents' decisions when it struck down Washington's "breathtakingly broad" nonparental visitation statute. Id. at 67, 73. In that case, mother had decided to limit her children's visits with their paternal grandparents to once per month. Id. at 61. The grandparents brought suit under Washington's nonparental visitation statute, which provided that "[a]ny person may petition the court for visitation rights at any time, " and permitted the court to "grant such visitation rights whenever visitation may serve the best interest of the child." Id. at 60–61 (citations omitted). After a hearing, the Washington Superior Court disregarded mother's request of one visit per month and issued a decree ordering more frequent visits, finding that it would serve the children's best interests. Id. at 61.

         ¶22 Ultimately, the Supreme Court reversed. It held that "fit parents act in the best interests of their children, " id. at 68, and stated that "the Due Process Clause does not permit a State to infringe on the fundamental right of parents to make child rearing decisions simply because a state judge believes a 'better' decision could be made, " id. at 72–73. It thus held that courts must apply a presumption in favor of the natural parents by according their decisions "special weight, " id. at 70, and considering "special factors that might justify the State's interference, " id. at 68. In announcing its holding, the Court emphasized that "[t]he Washington Superior Court failed to accord the determination of [mother], a fit custodial parent, any material weight." Id. at 72. In fact, the Superior Court's "slender findings" and "announced presumption in favor of grandparent visitation" demonstrated that it reached its holding primarily because it disagreed with mother's stated preference regarding grandparent visits. Id. In sum, Troxel stands for the proposition that courts may interfere with parents' liberty interests in the care, custody, and control of their children only if there are special factors that justify doing so. Baby A, ¶ 24, 363 P.3d at 202; see also Troxel, 530 U.S. at 68.

         ¶23 Relying on Troxel, the court of appeals in this case created an additional factor that the State must prove before a child can be adjudicated dependent or neglected: that neither parent is available, able, and willing to provide reasonable parental care. J.G., ¶ 23. We determine that this is unnecessary, as the court of appeals' analysis extends Troxel beyond its holding. The court of appeals' holding-that at the adjudication stage of a dependency or neglect proceeding, the State may not intervene in the parent-child relationship when at least one parent is available, able, and willing to provide reasonable parental care-improperly assumes that the dependency or neglect statute fails to comply with Troxel's due process requirements. However, neither the statute nor our precedent supports this holding, and Troxel does not require this-or any other-addition to the statutory criteria for the statute to pass constitutional muster.

         ¶24 Rather, the dependency or neglect statute, as drafted, satisfies due process. The purpose of adjudication is to determine whether State intervention is necessary to serve the best interests of the children, but to do so in a manner that protects parental rights. Thus, parents are afforded robust due process rights during the adjudicatory stage of dependency or neglect proceedings. Specifically, the statute protects against the erroneous deprivation of parental rights by putting the burden on the State to prove at least one of its allegations by a preponderance of the evidence to the satisfaction of the fact-finder. See L.L. v. People, 10 P.3d 1271, 1277 (Colo. 2000). Those factual allegations must meet statutory criteria that can be described as "special factors" as that term is used in Troxel. 530 U.S. at 68. Thus, the State justifies intervening into the parent-child legal relationship by proving special factors.[6]

         ¶25 The dependency or neglect statute also requires that each parent must be accorded (1) notice of the allegations made by the State; (2) the right to challenge the allegations at a trial either by the court or a jury; (3) the opportunity to present evidence in his or her favor; and (4) the right to be represented by an attorney. See §§ 19-3-102 to -508. Finally, as discussed above, the burden is on the State to prove the allegations by a preponderance of the evidence. Only if all these requirements have been met may the State intervene into a family's affairs. These protections render the statutory dependency or neglect procedure fundamentally fair. In fact, we have already held that Colorado's dependency or neglect procedures satisfy Troxel's due process requirements. L.L., 10 P.3d at 1276 (distinguishing dependency or neglect proceedings from termination proceedings and holding that preponderance of the evidence standard sufficiently protects parents' due process rights); see also A.M.D., 648 P.2d at 641. Thus, while dependency or neglect proceedings may present the risk of erroneously depriving parents of their parental rights, the statutory procedures protect against this possibility and serve the purpose of assisting and supporting families (when possible) rather than usurping a parent's role. L.L., 10 P.3d at 1277.

         ¶26 In this case, the special factor warranting the State's intervention is the children's injurious environment. See § 19-3-102(1)(c). In other words, the State may intervene when a child is in a situation that is likely harmful to that child. The fact finder can find an injurious environment only after hearing and weighing evidence from all parties and after the court has ensured that the parents received all of the due process rights that the statute guarantees. For these reasons, Troxel does not require modifying what the State must prove in dependency or neglect proceedings.

         ¶27 In concluding that the State must additionally prove that neither parent is available, able, and willing to provide reasonable parental care, the court of appeals unnecessarily conflated the statutory dependency or neglect criteria with the termination criteria. Nowhere does section 19-3-102, the adjudication statute, contain language requiring that both parents must be unavailable, unable, or unwilling to provide reasonable parental care before the children may be adjudicated dependent or neglected. Rather, that language is found in the termination statute at section 19-3-604(2). In termination proceedings, parental rights may be terminated if it is found by clear and convincing evidence that a child has been adjudicated dependent or neglected and that three additional factors exist. § 19-3-604(1)(c)(I)–(III).

         ¶28 The first factor is that the parent or parents failed to reasonably comply with an appropriate treatment plan, or the plan was unsuccessful, or a court found that no appropriate treatment plan could be devised. § 19-3-604(1)(c)(I). The second factor is that the parent or parents are unfit. § 19-3-604(1)(c)(II). The third factor is that the conduct or condition of the parent or parents is unlikely to change within a reasonable time. § 19-3-604(1)(c)(III). The ...


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