Judge wrong to terminate mom’s parental rights without her or her lawyer present, appeals court says

The state’s Court of Appeals on Thursday reversed an Adams County judge who terminated a mother’s parental rights at a hearing in which neither she nor her attorney was present.

A woman identified as J.L.S. gave birth to a child and within a week, Adams County initiated child welfare proceedings. The government then moved to terminate J.L.S.’s legal rights over the child, with a hearing set for July 5, 2022.

Three weeks before July 5, J.L.S.’s lawyer requested to postpone the hearing.

According to the appellate court’s narrative, J.L.S. was pregnant with another child who was due around July 5. She was unable to help prepare for the hearing and would likely not appear. Therefore, the lawyer believed his own ability to provide effective assistance was compromised.

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J.L.S. gave birth early, but on July 4 her lawyer again asked to postpone on the grounds that J.L.S. was experiencing “aftereffects” of birth and still could not help him prepare.

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Then-District Court Judge Katherine R. Delgado did not rule on the attorney’s motions beforehand and the July 5 termination hearing proceeded as scheduled. J.L.S. was not there. At the hearing, Delgado denied the postponement requests. J.L.S.’s lawyer then asked to withdraw from the case.

Delgado allowed him to withdraw, “given that you’re in a position in which you don’t know how to represent your client and your client has not given you the direction.”

Without J.L.S. or any lawyer representing her present, Delgado proceeded with the hearing. A caseworker testified on behalf of the government, with no one to cross-examine him. Delgado then terminated J.L.S.’s parental rights.

On appeal, the government conceded Delgado’s actions violated J.L.S.’s rights under state law.

“In Colorado, a parent has a statutory right to appointed counsel in a termination proceeding,” Judge Rebecca R. Freyre wrote in the Jan. 19 opinion for a three-judge panel of the appellate court. “(B)ecause mother’s counsel moved to withdraw in her absence and without notice to mother, she never had an opportunity to object.”

Although J.L.S. also alleged Delgado had violated her constitutional right to due process, the panel reversed the termination decision based on state law and the rules of procedure, without addressing other potential issues.

The case is People in the Interest of A.A.L.

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