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People v. Respondents

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

April 30, 2018

The People of the State of Colorado, In the Interest of Minor Child R.S. Petitioner
v.
G.S. and D.S. Respondents

          Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals, Court of appleals Case No. 16CA685

          Attorneys for for Petitioner Ron Carl, County Attorney, Arapahoe County Michael Valentine Marilee McWilliam Aurora, Colorado

          Guardian ad Litem for the Minor Child: Bettenberg, Sharshel & Maguire, LLC Alison A. sharshel Centennial, Colorado

          Attorneys for Amicus Curiae Office of The Child;s Representative Carl L. Nord Denver, Colorado

          Attorneys for Amicus Curiae Office of Respondent Parents Counsel: Ruhi Kapoor Denver, Colorado

          No appearance On Behalf Of Respondents.

          MARQUEZ JUSTICE

          ¶1 In this case, the Arapahoe County Department of Human Services filed a petition in dependency or neglect concerning minor child R.S., and naming both parents as respondents. The mother requested a bench trial to adjudicate the dependent or neglected status of the child; the father requested a jury trial for the same purpose. The court held a single adjudicatory trial, with the judge serving as fact-finder with respect to the Department's allegations against the mother, and a jury sitting as fact-finder with respect to the allegations against the father. The judge ultimately concluded that the child was dependent or neglected "in regard to" the mother. In contrast, the jury, as the father's fact-finder, concluded there was insufficient factual basis to support a finding that the child was dependent or neglected. In light of these divergent findings, the trial court adjudicated the child dependent or neglected and continued to exercise jurisdiction over the child and the mother, but entered an order dismissing the father from the petition. The mother appealed the trial court's adjudication of the child as dependent or neglected; the Department appealed the jury's verdict regarding the father, as well as the trial court's denial of the Department's motion for adjudication notwithstanding the verdict.

         ¶2 In a unanimous, published opinion, the court of appeals dismissed the Department's appeal for lack of jurisdiction, reasoning that the dismissal of a single parent from a petition in dependency or neglect based on a jury verdict is not a final appealable order because neither the appellate rule nor the statutory provision governing appeals from proceedings in dependency or neglect expressly permits an appeal from a "'no adjudication' finding." See People In Interest of S.M-L., 2016 COA 173, ¶¶ 15-23___, P.3d ___. We granted the Department and the guardian ad litem's petition for certiorari review.[1]

         ¶3 We conclude that, with limited exceptions not relevant here, section 19-1-109(1) of the Colorado Children's Code authorizes appeals in dependency or neglect proceedings from "any order" that qualifies as a "final judgment" for purposes of section 13-4-102(1), C.R.S. (2017). Because the trial court's order in this case dismissing the father from the petition was not a "final judgment, " we conclude that the court of appeals lacked jurisdiction and properly dismissed the Department's appeal. We therefore affirm the court of appeals' dismissal of the Department's appeal, albeit under different reasoning.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶4 In January 2016, the Arapahoe County Department of Human Services filed a petition in dependency or neglect before the Arapahoe County District Court concerning minor child R.S. and two other minor children, [2] naming R.S.'s biological mother ("Mother") and biological father ("Father") as respondents. The petition alleged that R.S. was dependent or neglected under section 19-3-102(1)(a)-(d), C.R.S. (2017), on the grounds that her parents had "abandoned" her, "subjected [her] to mistreatment or abuse, " or "suffered or allowed another to mistreat or abuse [her] without taking lawful means to stop such mistreatment or abuse"; she "lack[ed] proper parental care"; her "environment [was] injurious to [her] welfare"; and her parents failed or refused to provide proper or necessary care for her well-being. As factual support for these claims, the petition alleged that Father had sexually abused his stepdaughter (R.S.'s half-sister) S.M-L., who lived with R.S. and Mother. The petition further alleged that Mother did not believe S.M-L.'s outcry and that Mother stated that S.M-L. had lied about the abuse. The petition did not allege that Father had sexually abused R.S. or that R.S. made an outcry.

         ¶5 Father and Mother denied the allegations and each requested a trial to adjudicate the dependent or neglected status of R.S. Mother requested a bench trial, and Father requested a jury trial.

         ¶6 A single trial was held on April 19-21, 2016, with the trial court sitting as Mother's fact-finder and a jury sitting as Father's fact-finder.[3] The Department presented expert testimony from the Arapahoe County investigator who investigated the allegations that Father had sexually assaulted S.M-L., the caseworker assigned to the family, a forensic interviewer who interviewed S.M-L. regarding the sexual-assault allegations against Father, and a licensed clinical social worker with expertise in sexual abuse. The Department also presented lay testimony from S.M-L. and Mother. The Department contended that R.S. faced "prospective harm" as a result of Father's conduct toward S.M-L., stating in closing argument that, "If the evidence shows that [Father] was inappropriate with his stepdaughter [S.M-L.], then we know that [R.S.] is at risk." R.S.'s guardian ad litem (the "GAL") agreed with the Department, adding that R.S. should be adjudicated as dependent or neglected because Mother "is blatantly unwilling to even look at the idea that this may have happened to [S.M-L.]."

         ¶7 The trial court, as Mother's fact-finder, determined that R.S. was dependent or neglected, finding that Mother's response to S.M-L.'s outcry was insufficient to protect her children, even if the allegations were ultimately untrue. The trial court observed, "[Mother] does not believe that the information provided by [S.M-L.] is true. Nonetheless, [Mother] has not developed a way to protect [R.S.] should the allegations be true, " nor has she "determined how she would shelter [R.S.] from [Father] during times that [R.S.] might be vulnerable."

         ¶8 In contrast, the jury, as Father's fact-finder, found insufficient factual basis to support a finding that R.S. was dependent or neglected. The Department moved for an adjudication notwithstanding the jury's verdict, arguing that the verdict was not supported by the evidence. The trial court denied the motion and entered an order dismissing Father from the petition. The court then entered an order adjudicating R.S. as dependent or neglected "in regard to" Mother and adopted a treatment plan for her. The case continued with Mother maintaining custody of R.S. under the Department's supervision.

         ¶9 Father later pled guilty in a separate criminal case to a charge of unlawful sexual contact-no consent, in violation of section 18-3-404(1)(a), C.R.S. (2017). On October 24, 2016, Father was sentenced to four years of Sex Offender Intensive Supervision Probation and was barred from contact with children under the age of 18.

         ¶10 Mother appealed the trial court's adjudication of R.S. as dependent or neglected with regard to her. The Department appealed the jury's nonadjudication verdict regarding Father and the trial court's denial of its motion for adjudication notwithstanding the verdict.[4]

          ¶11 The court of appeals issued an order to show cause why the Department's appeal should not be dismissed for lack of a final appealable order, questioning whether the dismissal of a single parent from a dependency or neglect petition based on a jury verdict was a final appealable order. See People In Interest of S.M-L., 2016 COA 173, ¶ 15, ___ P.3d ___. In response to the show-cause order, the Department cited People in Interest of M.A.L., 592 P.2d 415 (Colo.App. 1976), in which the court of appeals entertained an appeal of a jury verdict finding that minor children were not dependent or neglected. See S.M-L., ¶ 15. A motions division of the court allowed the appeal to proceed and for the issue of finality to be considered on the merits. See id.

         ¶12 In a unanimous, published opinion, the court of appeals dismissed the Department's appeal, concluding that "the [trial] court's dismissal of a party from a dependency or neglect petition based on a jury's verdict is not a final appealable order under [the Colorado Appellate Rules] or the [Colorado] Children's Code." S.M-L., ¶ 15. The court examined C.A.R. 3.4(a) and section 19-1-109, C.R.S. (2017)-the appellate rule and statutory provision governing appeals from proceedings in dependency or neglect-and concluded that neither contains language expressly permitting an appeal from a "'no adjudication' finding." Id. at ¶¶ 19-20. Thus, the court reasoned, the General Assembly did not intend for such findings to be appealable orders. Id. ¶13 We granted the Department and the GAL's joint petition for certiorari review of the court of appeals' dismissal of the Department's appeal.[5]

         II. Analysis

         ¶14 As the court of appeals observed both in its show-cause order and its opinion, the question here is whether the dismissal of one parent from a petition based on a jury's "no adjudication" verdict constitutes a final appealable order. See S.M-L., ¶ 15. Accordingly, we analyze whether the statutory provisions and court rule governing appeals in dependency or neglect proceedings authorized the Department's appeal of the trial court's order dismissing Father from the petition based on the jury's "no adjudication" verdict. We conclude that section 19-1-109(1) of the Colorado Children's Code authorizes appeals from "any order, decree, or judgment" in dependency or neglect proceedings, but only to the extent that such appeals are permitted by section 13-4-102(1), C.R.S. (2017). As pertinent here, section 13-4-102(1) authorizes the appeal of any order that constitutes a final judgment. Here, the order dismissing Father from the petition was not a final judgment because it did not end the dependency or neglect proceeding or provide a final determination of the rights of all the parties to the proceeding. Therefore, the court of appeals lacked jurisdiction and properly dismissed the Department's appeal.

         A. Statutory Authorization for Appeals from Proceedings in Dependency or Neglect

         ¶15 We begin by examining the statutory provisions governing appeals from proceedings in dependency or neglect. We review questions of statutory construction de novo. Trujillo v. Colo. Div. of Ins., 2014 CO 17, ¶ 12, 320 P.3d 1208, 1212. In interpreting these provisions, "[o]ur objective is to effectuate the intent and purpose of the General Assembly." Id. at ¶ 12, 320 P.3d at 1212-13. To determine the legislature's intent, we look first to the plain language of a statutory provision. Bostelman v. People, 162 P.3d 686, 690 (Colo. 2007). Where the statutory language is clear, we apply the plain and ordinary meaning of the provision. Trujillo, ΒΆ 12, 320 P.3d at 1213. Additionally, a statute must be ...


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