CS v. People

Decision Date26 January 2004
Docket Number No. 03SC336., No. 03SC335
Citation83 P.3d 627
PartiesC.S., Petitioner, v. The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Respondent, In the Interest of I.S., D.S. and N.A., children. C.S., Petitioner, v. The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Respondent, In the Interest of S.S., a child.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

Deborah Getz, Severance, Colorado, Attorneys for Petitioner.

Bruce T. Barker, Weld County Attorney, Jim L. Pope, Assistant Weld County Attorney, Attorneys for Respondent.

Justice KOURLIS delivered the Opinion of the Court.

I. Introduction

These consolidated cases involve dependency and neglect, and, ultimately, termination proceedings with respect to a mother and her four children. The case began in 1999 with three of the children, and in 2000, the fourth and youngest child was added. On January 16, 2002, the magistrate entered orders terminating the mother's rights as to all four children, and allowing the parties five days to seek review of the orders with the district court, pursuant to section 19-1-108(5), 6 C.R.S. (2003). The mother failed to seek a review within this five-day period and instead appealed directly to the court of appeals. Not until July 17, 2002, did her counsel file a motion with the district court seeking leave to file a petition for review despite the expiration of time. On August 8, 2002, the court granted that motion and the mother filed her petition for review on August 29, 2002.

The district court then reviewed and affirmed the magistrate's orders. The mother filed a notice of appeal of the district court's decision with the court of appeals on November 21, 2002, within the forty-five days required by C.A.R. (4)(a). The court of appeals dismissed the appeal on the grounds that it lacked jurisdiction since the petition for review of the magistrate's order was not filed with the district court within five days of entry of the orders, as required by statute.

We granted certiorari on the question of whether a timely filing of a petition for review of a termination order entered in the first instance by a magistrate is a jurisdictional prerequisite to appeal. We conclude that it is not. Rather, we conclude that the district court had the discretion to entertain a late petition for review, and that once such late petition was accepted by the district court, the court of appeals had jurisdiction to review the appeal. Accordingly, we reverse the court of appeals' dismissal of the appeal.

Rather than remanding the case to the court of appeals to address the merits of the appeal, in the interests of judicial economy, we proceed to do so.

The mother, C.S., raises four issues on appeal. First, she alleges that the court erred in allowing her counsel to withdraw at the outset of the termination hearing and then erred in denying her motion to continue the hearing; second, she alleges that the court did not properly advise her of the consequences of going forward without an attorney; third, she alleges that her confession of the motion to terminate her rights as to the three older children was made without adequate advisement; and lastly, she alleges that the termination order as to the youngest child was not supported by clear and convincing evidence.

We now hold that the district court1 did not abuse its discretion in allowing the mother's counsel to withdraw—at the request of the mother—just prior to the termination hearing and in then denying a motion to continue the proceeding such that the mother could seek yet a third attorney to represent her. Because a parent's right to counsel in a termination proceeding is a statutory right and not a constitutional one, it can be outweighed by considerations of finality, and, most importantly, the best interests of the children. We further hold that the mother's decision to confess the motion to terminate her parental rights as to her three older children was made with adequate advisement, throughout the course of the case, as to the consequences of such a decision. Lastly, we conclude that the district court's order terminating the mother's parental rights as to the fourth child was supported by clear and convincing evidence in the record. The Parent-Child Legal Relationship Termination Act of 1987 (the "Termination Act"), §§ 19-3-601 -703, 6 C.R.S. (2003), serves as the touchstone for evaluating the adequacy of the proceedings below. In that Act, our General Assembly balanced a parent's rights, family ties, and the child's welfare, and implemented various criteria and procedures that govern termination cases. Where the trial court substantially complies with the statute, there is a presumption of no prejudice to a parent in a termination hearing. See People in Interest of A.M.D., 648 P.2d 625, 631 (Colo.1982). The record in this case reflects that the mandates of the Termination Act were satisfied, and that the district court did not abuse its discretion. Accordingly, we affirm all four termination orders and return this case to the district court for any further proceedings.

II. Facts and Procedural History

Respondent Mother's (C.S.'s) three children, N.A., I.S., and D.S., then aged 10, 8, and 3, were removed from her home by the Weld County Department of Social Services (the "Department") on June 3, 1999. The Department then filed a petition with the Weld County District Court (the "district court") alleging that the children were dependent and neglected, pursuant to section 19-3-501, 6 C.R.S. (2003), on June 8, 1999. The matter was referred to a district court magistrate for handling. At this time, as well as at various other times during the course of this case, C.S. was served with an advisement of rights indicating that the proceedings could result in the termination of her parental rights. On July 1, 1999, the court entered a Deferred Adjudication, vested temporary custody of the children with the Department, entered protective orders concerning contact with the parents,2 approved a treatment plan for C.S.'s rehabilitation as a parent, and ordered a formal investigation. The court also appointed Gladys Sexton as counsel for C.S. and appointed Troy Hause as guardian ad litem for the three children.

Various review hearings were held during the following year. In February of 2000, the court approved Permanency Plans recognizing that the children were not likely to return home within the next six months and approving continued placement with the Department. On March 22, 2000, C.S. gave birth to her fourth child, S.S. Because C.S. was complying with the treatment plan then in effect (she had found a place to live) the three older children were returned to C.S.'s home in June of 2000. On September 19, 2000, the three older children were once again removed, the youngest child was removed for the first time, and all four children were placed into the legal custody of the Department due to "homelessness, poor attendance in school and lack of parental supervision." The older children were placed temporarily with S.C., the children's maternal aunt.3 The baby, S.S., was placed into a Weld County foster home. On the same day, the Department filed a petition for dependency and neglect concerning S.S., and the court entered temporary orders. Hause was appointed guardian ad litem for S.S. and Sexton was appointed as counsel for C.S. Again, C.S. received a written advisement explaining her rights concerning the dependency and neglect proceedings, and expressly warning her that her relationship with her children could be terminated such that they could be made eligible for adoption.

On November 17, 2000, the court approved a new treatment plan recommended by the Department, this one encompassing all four children. A hearing to review the Department's recommendations for permanent placement of the children (the "permanency hearing") was then set for February 8, 2001, a notice of which was sent to C.S. That notice included another advisement of the possibility of termination. The hearing was continued until April 19, 2001.

At the permanency hearing on April 19, 2001, the Department recommended termination of the parental relationship as to the three oldest children and stated that the goal concerning S.S. was for him to "return home." On May 8, 2001, the court decreed S.S. dependent and neglected and continued the matter until July 5, 2001, stating that the current treatment plan regarding S.S. would be ongoing. By July 5, the Department had determined to file a formal Motion to Terminate Parental Rights as to S.S. also. At that point, C.S. received another written advisement, this time specifically setting forth her rights and duties with respect to the pending termination petition. At a hearing that same day, C.S. requested that the court appoint new counsel for her and discharge Ms. Sexton. She claimed that she needed a new appointed attorney because she had "been misguided, misrepresented," and because Sexton had failed to give the court some information that would have proved the "accusations against her were false." Sexton explained that because of C.S.'s distrust, the lawyer-client relationship had deteriorated. While the court did not find that Sexton had done anything improper, it reluctantly agreed to let Sexton withdraw, and appointed Jack Davis as C.S.'s attorney, telling C.S. at the time that "I will appoint one more attorney for you—[Davis]—and that is it." The court then continued the matter until July 26, 2001.

On July 26, 2001, the Department filed formal motions to terminate the parent-child relationship as to the three older children, and another written advisement was provided to C.S. The termination trial concerning all four children was then set for December 4 and 5, 2001, and the court ordered that custody of all four children would remain with the Department, with N.A. remaining at the placement home, D.S. and I.S. staying with their aunt, and S.S. remaining with his foster family. Mediation concerning the ...

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