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People ex rel. L.M.

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

April 30, 2018

The People of the State of Colorado In the Interest of Minor Children L.M., E.M., and E.J.M., and Concerning Respondent: L.G.M. Petitioner

          Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals Court of Appeals Case Nos. 14CA2454, 14CA2455, 14CA2456, & 14CA2457

          Attorney for Petitioner: Jason T. Kelly Alamosa, Colorado.

          Guardian ad Litem for the Minor Children: Anna N. H. Ulrich, Attorney at Law, L.L.C. Anna N. H. Ulrich Salida, Colorado.

          Attorneys for Respondent: Zerbi Law Firm, PC Mérida I. Zerbi Monte Vista, Colorado.

          OPINION

          GABRIEL JUSTICE.

         ¶1 This case requires us to decide whether the State may seek to terminate a parent's parental rights under the relinquishment provision of the Colorado Children's Code (the "Code"), § 19-5-105, C.R.S. (2017), when the child is already subject to a dependency and neglect proceeding under Article 3 of the Code, §§ 19-3-100.5 to -805, C.R.S. (2017).[1] We conclude that when a dependency and neglect proceeding is pending, the State can terminate parental rights only through the procedures set forth in Article 3 of the Code and cannot use the more limited processes provided in Article 5.

         ¶2 Accordingly, we affirm the court of appeals division's judgment.

         I. Facts and Procedural Background

         ¶3 The Alamosa County Department of Human Services (the "Department") received a call from a "concerned party" who reported that the mother of the children at issue ("Mother") had given birth to a child, E.J.M., and that during prenatal visits Mother had tested positive for opiates. The Department also received the results of a meconium drug screen, performed after E.J.M.'s birth, which indicated the presence of opiates, oxycodone, and oxymorphone. And the Department received an additional report that Mother had been seen selling pills out of her home in the presence of her children and that her infant "appeared to be going through withdrawals."

         ¶4 The Department interviewed Mother, who admitted that she was addicted to prescription medications, although she denied selling drugs from her home. Mother had a history of prior referrals to the Department, and her older children had previously been temporarily removed from her home due to her drug use.

         ¶5 Meanwhile, the father of the children, respondent L.G.M. ("Father"), had been incarcerated following a criminal conviction and remained in custody at the time the Department conducted its investigation. Father had a history of methamphetamine use.

         ¶6 In light of the foregoing, the Department filed a dependency and neglect petition with regard to E.M., L.M., and E.J.M. (the "Children"). Although both Mother and Father initially denied the allegations contained in the petition, they subsequently entered admissions, and the court adjudicated the Children dependent and neglected.

         ¶7 The court then conducted a dispositional hearing and adopted a treatment plan for Mother. After discussions with Father (who appeared pro se, having dismissed his appointed counsel), however, the court found that no treatment plan could be developed for Father at that time. The court based this finding on Father's non-responsive answers to the court's questions, which the court construed as an objection to the proposed treatment plan. Nonetheless, the court informed Father that if at any point, he decided that he was ready to work on a treatment plan, then he could ask and the court would have the Department prepare one for him. But the court warned Father that there could come a time when it would be too late for him to make such a request.

         ¶8 A few months later, the case came before a new judge for a permanency planning hearing. During that hearing, the court informed Father that the permanency plan for the children remained reunification with the parents and stated that the court would allow the Department to continue to work with Father's prison case manager to see if Father could take advantage of whatever programs the prison had available.

         ¶9 Ultimately, the guardian ad litem filed a motion to terminate both parents' legal rights. Mother chose not to contest this motion and subsequently relinquished her rights. Once Mother did so, the Department filed its own petition, pursuant to the relinquishment provisions in Article 5 of the Code, to terminate Father's parental rights. Father continued to indicate his desire for reunification with the Children and some willingness to participate in treatment. Nevertheless, the matter proceeded to a hearing in accordance with the Article 5 relinquishment provisions. After hearing testimony from the Children's therapist, Father, and Father's mother, the juvenile court terminated Father's parental rights pursuant to Article 5 (the relinquishment provisions) of the Code and made the Children available for adoption.

         ¶10 Father appealed, and in a unanimous, published decision, a division of the court of appeals reversed. People ex rel. E.M., 2016 COA 38M, ¶ 7, __P.3d__. In its opinion, the division concluded that Article 3 and Article 5 of the Code serve distinct purposes and that "these separate and distinct purposes are not well served when an attempt is made to intertwine them." Id. at ¶ 10. The division characterized Article 3's purpose as the protection of children and the preservation of family ties, if possible. Id. at ¶ 11. The division described Article 5, in contrast, as designed "to promote the integrity and finality of adoption to ensure that children whose parents are unable or unwilling to provide proper parental care will be raised in stable, loving, and permanent families." Id. at ¶ 13. The division further concluded that "the dependency and neglect court maintains continuing, exclusive jurisdiction over any child who has been adjudicated dependent and neglected." Id. at ¶ 18. Therefore, it reasoned, "[T]he dependency and neglect case is that which controls the status of an alleged dependent and neglected child. In sum, when a child is dependent and neglected, matters related to that child's status must be addressed through the open dependency and neglect case." Id. at ¶ 24 (citation omitted). The division thus reversed the termination under Article 5 and remanded for further proceedings in the dependency and neglect case. Id. at ¶¶ 36-37.

         ¶11 The Department then filed a petition for certiorari, which we granted.

         II. Analysis

         ¶12 We begin by discussing the standard of review and the applicable principles of statutory construction. We then consider whether Article 3 and Article 5 of the Code conflict. To this end, we review the differing purposes of Article 3 and Article 5. We further examine the procedures set out in each section to effectuate those purposes and note that Article 5 implicitly presumes both that the relinquishing parent is fit and acting in the best interests of the relinquished child and that no dependency and neglect proceeding is ongoing. We then consider the Department's and guardian ad litem's arguments, ultimately finding them unpersuasive, and we conclude that in the circumstances presented here, Article 3 and Article 5 conflict and that the General Assembly did not intend to allow the State to circumvent the substantive and procedural protections available to the parties in a pending Article 3 proceeding. Accordingly, we conclude that the Department could not proceed with a termination motion under Article 5 in this case, and we remand for further proceedings in the dependency and neglect action.

         A. Standard of Review and Principles of Statutory Construction

         ¶13 We review questions of statutory interpretation de novo. UMB Bank, N.A. v. Landmark Towers Ass'n, 2017 CO 107, ¶ 22, 408 P.3d 836, 840. In construing a statute, we look at the entire statutory scheme "in order to give consistent, harmonious, and sensible effect to all of its parts, and we apply words and phrases in accordance with their plain and ordinary meanings." Id. In addition, "[w]e construe statutes related to the same subject matter alongside one another . . ., [and] [w]e strive to avoid statutory interpretations that render certain words or provisions superfluous or ineffective." Kinder Morgan CO2 Co. v. Montezuma Cty. Bd. of Comm'rs, 2017 CO 72, ¶ 24, 396 P.3d 657, 664 (citation omitted). We likewise avoid constructions that lead to absurd results. See In re S.O., 795 P.2d 254, 258 (Colo. 1990). Our goal is to adopt an interpretation that achieves consistency across a comprehensive statutory scheme. People ex rel. D.R.W., 91 P.3d 453, 457 (Colo.App. 2004).

         B. Article 3 and Article 5 of the Code

         ¶14 The General Assembly has declared that the purposes of the Code generally include (1) securing for each child subject to the Code "such care and guidance, preferably in his own home, as will best serve his welfare and the interests of society"; (2) preserving and strengthening family ties whenever possible; (3) removing children from the custody of their parents only when their welfare and safety or the protection of the public would otherwise be endangered; and (4) securing for any child removed from his parents' custody "the necessary care, guidance, and discipline to assist him in becoming a responsible and productive member of society." § 19-1-102(1), C.R.S. (2017). The Code ...


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