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People v. C.O.

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

December 11, 2017

The People of the State of Colorado, In the Interest of Minor Children: J.W. and N.W., Petitioner
v.
C.O., Respondent

         Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals Court of Appeals Case No. 15CA1698

          Attorneys for Petitioner: Robert W. Loeffler, County Attorney, Clear Creek County Sue S. Thibault, Assistant County Attorney Georgetown, Colorado

          Guardian ad Litem for the Minor Children: Wendy M. Hickey, P.C. Wendy M. Hickey Breckenridge, Colorado

          Attorneys for Respondent: The Noble Law Firm, LLC Antony Noble Lakewood, Colorado

          OPINION

          MÁRQUEZ, JUSTICE

         ¶1 Section 19-3-604(1)(c) of the Colorado Children's Code provides that a juvenile court may terminate a parent's legal relationship with a child if the child is adjudicated dependent or neglected and the court finds by clear and convincing evidence that certain additional conditions exist. § 19-3-604(1)(c)(I)-(III), C.R.S. (2017). Here, we must determine whether a juvenile court validly terminated a mother's parent-child legal relationship without first entering a formal written order adjudicating her children as dependent or neglected.

         ¶2 In this case, the father entered a no-fault admission to the Clear Creek County Department of Human Services' petition in dependency or neglect, and the trial court adjudicated the children dependent or neglected with respect to him. The mother denied the allegations in the petition and proceeded to a jury trial, but the trial did not result in an adjudication of the children's status. Rather than request a retrial, however, the mother chose to admit the Department's allegation that her children were dependent or neglected due to an injurious environment. The trial court accepted the mother's admission and began immediately to discuss drawing up a treatment plan for her. The record reflects that the court and the parties thereafter proceeded as if the court had adjudicated the children as dependent or neglected, but the court did not enter a written order of adjudication before it terminated the mother's parental rights approximately a year later.

         ¶3 In a published, split decision, the court of appeals vacated the termination order. People in Interest of J.W., 2016 COA 125, ___ P.3d ___. Relevant here, the court of appeals held that because the trial court failed to enter an order adjudicating the children as dependent or neglected, the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to terminate the mother's parental rights. Id. at ¶¶ 23, 27, 32. We granted the Department's petition for certiorari review.[1]

         ¶4 We disagree with the court of appeals that the trial court's failure to enter an order adjudicating the children's status as neglected or dependent divested the trial court of jurisdiction to proceed to termination of the parent-child legal relationship in this case. Instead, because the trial court accepted the parents' admission that the children were neglected or dependent, we conclude that the purpose of the adjudicative process was met and the children's status as neglected or dependent was established, thus permitting state intervention into the familial relationship. Moreover, both the Department and the mother proceeded as if the court had adjudicated the status of the children. The mother participated in subsequent hearings and attempted to comply with the trial court's treatment plan. She never sought to withdraw her admission, and she never challenged the trial court's jurisdiction or otherwise objected below to the trial court's verbal or written termination orders finding that the children had been adjudicated neglected or dependent. Under these circumstances, we conclude that the trial court's failure to enter an adjudicative order confirming the children's status as neglected or dependent did not impair the fundamental fairness of the proceedings or deprive the mother of due process. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and remand for the court of appeals to consider the mother's other contentions on appeal.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶5 In May 2014, the Clear Creek County Department of Human Services sought temporary protective custody of J.W., then five years old, and N.W., then ten months old, based on allegations that an unrelated child suffered serious injuries in their home, and that their mother, C.O. ("Mother"), was unable to protect them. Shortly after being granted temporary custody of the children, the Department filed a petition in dependency or neglect before the Clear Creek County District Court[2] concerning the children, naming Mother as a respondent[3] and alleging the children were dependent or neglected under section 19-3-102(1)(a), C.R.S. (2017), on the ground that Mother had "abandoned" them, "subjected [them] to mistreatment or abuse, " or "suffered or allowed another to mistreat or abuse [them] without taking lawful means to stop such mistreatment or abuse and prevent it from recurring." The Department later amended its petition, alleging instead that the children were dependent or neglected under sections 19-3-102(1)(b) and -(1)(c) because they "lack[ed] proper parental care" and because their "environment is injurious to [their] welfare." Mother denied the allegations.

         ¶6 The court held a jury trial on July 10-11, 2014, to adjudicate the status of the children. The jury found the children were not dependent or neglected for lack of proper parental care, but it was unable to return an answer as to whether they were dependent or neglected due to an injurious environment. Thus, the trial did not result in an adjudication of the children's status.

         ¶7 The trial court held a hearing on July 14, 2014, to discuss, among other things, scheduling a new trial to adjudicate the status of the children. Rather than request a new trial, Mother chose to admit the allegation that the children were dependent or neglected under section 19-3-102(1)(c) due to an injurious environment. Mother told the court that she wished to forgo a second trial because she wanted to get "[her] kids back the speediest way . . . possible" and holding a new trial would "take time."

         ¶8 After questioning Mother regarding the voluntariness of her admission and whether she had had sufficient opportunity to discuss the case with her lawyer, the trial court stated, "All right, then . . . I'll make the admission that the mother's entered the admission that the child-children's environment is injurious." Immediately thereafter, the court began to discuss approval of a treatment plan for Mother and setting a case review hearing. Nothing in the record indicates that Mother requested a deferred adjudication, or that she was offered one. At the close of the July 14 hearing, the court remarked to the parties on the record, "I'm glad you all are able to reach an agreement on this case. . . . I think you're reaching a common goal here to get the kids home. . . . I'm glad that you all worked this out, rather than, than going through another trial." The Department asserts (and Mother does not dispute) that immediately after the July 14 hearing, a proposed written adjudication and disposition order was distributed to and approved by the parties. However, through an apparent oversight, the proposed written order was not submitted to the court for signature.

         ¶9 Mother worked on the treatment plan approved by the trial court for approximately a year, and the court held several review hearings during that period. Mother, who was represented by counsel throughout the proceedings, never withdrew her admission or challenged the court's continued jurisdiction. In June 2015, the Department moved to terminate Mother's parental rights. The Department's motion alleged that the children had been adjudicated dependent or neglected with respect to Mother on July 14, 2014. Mother did not challenge the Department's assertion.

         ¶10 Following a two-day trial, the trial court entered an order on September 23, 2015, terminating Mother's parental rights. The termination order states among its findings that "the children have been adjudicated dependent and neglected as to [Mother]." Mother did not object to this finding.

         ¶11 Mother appealed the termination order on October 28, 2015. When listing relevant dates in the case in her briefing to the court of appeals, Mother indicated that the trial ...


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