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People ex rel. C.L.T.

Court of Appeals of Colorado, Third Division

September 7, 2017

The People of the State of Colorado, Petitioner-Appellee, In the Interest of C.L.T., a Child, and Concerning L.T., Respondent-Appellant.

         City and County of Denver Juvenile Court No. 15JV1322 Honorable Donna J. Schmalberger, Judge

          Kristen M. Bronson, City Attorney, Laura Grzetic Eibsen, Assistant City Attorney, Denver, Colorado, for Petitioner-Appellee

          Barry Meinster, Guardian Ad Litem Wendy Lewis, PC, Wendy Lewis, Boulder, Colorado, for Respondent-Appellant


          WEBB JUDGE.

         ¶ 1 This dependency and neglect proceeding raises a novel question: does the Uniform Child-custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA), sections 14-13-101 to -403, C.R.S. 2016, require a trial court to make further inquiries to establish jurisdiction, although the court has received only limited information about child welfare proceedings in other states? L.T. (mother) appeals the judgment terminating the parent-child legal relationship between her and C.L.T. (the child), primarily on the basis that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to enter such a permanent order under the UCCJEA. We vacate the judgment and remand the case for the trial court to undertake further inquiries about proceedings concerning the child in other states, confer with courts in other states as appropriate, and then make express findings as to its UCCJEA jurisdiction.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         ¶ 2 In August 2015, the Denver Department of Human Services (DDHS) received a referral from police expressing concern about the nine-year-old child. DDHS learned that the child was the subject of an open sex abuse investigation by police in another jurisdiction. Also, DDHS was concerned about reports that the child was considerably behind in school; she had not been enrolled for 2015; and her parents often used her as an active participant in panhandling. The family had a history of substance abuse, mental health problems, domestic violence, and involvement with child welfare authorities in Texas and other states.

         ¶ 3 After DDHS filed a petition in dependency and neglect, the child was placed in foster care.

         ¶ 4 The trial court adjudicated the child dependent and neglected; it approved treatment plans for both mother and F.T. (father). Mother's treatment plan required her to maintain consistent visitation with the child; engage in mental health services; participate in a substance abuse evaluation; cooperate with DDHS; and follow all recommendations. She was also required to show that she could provide safe, suitable housing for the child and income adequate to meet the child's financial needs.

         ¶ 5 Soon after the case had been opened, mother moved to North Carolina to be near her family. At first, she resided with her mother. But in December, the caseworker learned that she had been asked to leave her mother's home because she was no longer engaged in treatment.

         ¶ 6 In June 2016, DDHS moved to terminate the parental rights of both mother and father, alleging that they had not complied with their treatment plans and that both of them were unfit parents.

         ¶ 7 At trial, the caseworker testified that mother had not been successful in meeting any of the goals set forth in her treatment plan. Her visits with the child had been suspended in April 2016 because of her inconsistency and concerns about her mental health. She had no contact with the child after that date. She failed to complete a mental health evaluation, and the caseworker was unable to confirm any treatment in North Carolina. She admitted that she was addicted to drugs. She participated in substance abuse treatment, but she was discharged unsuccessfully from two treatment programs. She did not show that she could provide a safe and suitable home for the child or that she had an income sufficient to provide for the child. As time passed, she became less consistent in maintaining contact with the caseworker and her treating professionals.

         ¶ 8 The trial court found that although reasonable efforts had been made to rehabilitate mother, her treatment plan had not been successful, she was not fit to parent the child, and she was not likely to become fit within a reasonable period of time. The court made similar findings regarding father. Then it terminated the parental rights of both mother and father.

         II. The Record Does Not Show that the Trial Court Had Jurisdiction Under the UCCJEA to Terminate Mother's Parental Rights

         ¶ 9 Mother first contends the trial court lacked jurisdiction to terminate her parental rights because it failed to comply with the UCCJEA. She argues that since a child welfare case remained open in Texas when the Colorado case was filed, the Colorado court could exercise only emergency jurisdiction unless and until it acquired ongoing jurisdiction under the UCCJEA. We conclude that because the trial court did not develop the record by inquiring of the parties, further proceedings are necessary to resolve the jurisdictional issue.

         A. Additional Background

         ¶ 10 Shortly after mother, father, and the child came to the attention of DDHS in August 2015, DDHS caseworkers learned that they were recent arrivals from Texas. In the petition in dependency and neglect, DDHS alleged that the family had "a previous child welfare case in Texas" (also described as "an open child welfare case in Texas") as well as "child welfare history in Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, Mississippi and Oklahoma." Later, DDHS reported to the court that father "did not know that he had an open child welfare case in Kansas, " bringing to seven the number of other states that may have been involved with the child.

         ¶ 11 According to a minute order of a hearing on August 25, 2015, the assistant county attorney representing DDHS told the court that "THE TX DHS HAS CLOSED THEIR CASE." The record does not include a transcript of this hearing. The record lacks further information about the Texas case and the status of the other proceedings referenced in the family's child welfare history.

         ¶ 12 So, based on the information in the record, the trial court could not have determined whether it had jurisdiction to enter any orders other than temporary emergency orders concerning the child. Yet, the court neither stayed the proceeding until additional information could be obtained nor examined the parties under oath as to matters pertinent to the court's jurisdiction. Indeed, the court never expressly determined that it had jurisdiction under the UCCJEA.

         B. Preservation and Standard of Review

         ¶ 13 Mother concedes that she did not raise the jurisdictional issue below but asserts that lack of jurisdiction can be raised for the first time on appeal. DDHS and the guardian ad litem agree. So do we. See, e.g., People in ...

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