People in Interest of S.A.G., 2021 CO 38

In this decision, the Colorado Supreme Court decides whether the trial court had jurisdiction to terminate parental rights under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA).

The Colorado dependency and neglect (D&N) case commenced when S.A.G., a toddler, was found crossing a street alone and entering a gas station parking lot. After further investigation, the department placed S.A.G. with a foster family and filed a D&N case. From the outset of the case, the court knew that S.A.G. and his parents were from Arkansas. The court did not explicitly address jurisdictional until six months into the proceeding, when it acknowledged that Colorado was not the home state but that Colorado could not transfer jurisdiction because there was no open case in Arkansas. When the department moved to terminate parental rights, the juvenile court again addressed the jurisdiction. The department advised the court that it should inquire about prior custody proceedings to comply with the UCCJEA. The parents indicated that the Colorado proceeding was the first proceeding related to the child. The court concluded that the child was within the jurisdiction of the Denver juvenile court because the incident that led to the filing of the Colorado case occurred in Denver.

A division of the Court of Appeals held that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to terminate parental right because the requisite conditions to terminate parental rights pursuant to temporary emergency jurisdiction (TEJ) had not been met and none of the four ways a court could acquire non-emergency jurisdiction had been met. The Court of Appeals held that neither significant connection nor more appropriate forum jurisdiction requirements had been met because the juvenile court had not taken any affirmative action to communicate with a court in Arkansas.

The Colorado Supreme Court holds that the trial court did not have TEJ when it terminated parental rights because at that time S.A.G. was not abandoned and no emergency existed. While S.A.G. may have been abandoned and an emergency may have existed when the case commenced, by the time of the termination hearing S.A.G. had been living for over a year with a foster family that was meeting his needs.

The Court then analyzes the four possibilities for non-emergency jurisdiction under the UCCJEA: home-state jurisdiction, significant-connection jurisdiction, more-appropriate-forum jurisdiction, and last-resort jurisdiction. Key to this analysis is whether Arkansas had home-state jurisdiction at the time of the termination hearing. The Court looks to Arkansas law to determine whether Arkansas was the home state, which requires an analysis of parental intent and whether the S.A.G.’s time in Colorado was a temporary absence. Because the record leaves open the possibility that Arkansas has home-state jurisdiction, the Court remands for a full analysis of non-emergency jurisdiction.

To avoid further delay in the proceedings, the Court provides additional guidance on remand. The Court notes that if the juvenile court determines that Arkansas no longer has home-state jurisdiction, the juvenile court can consider significant-connection and last-resort-jurisdiction. If the juvenile court finds that Arkansas does have home state jurisdiction, last-resort jurisdiction is not a possibility and both significant-connection and more-appropriate-forum jurisdiction will require the juvenile court to contact an Arkansas court and ask it to decline to exercise its jurisdiction. While the UCCJEA does not identify which out-of-state court the juvenile court must contact under these circumstances, the UCCJEA does require parties to provide the juvenile court with information about the places where the child has lived during the last five years and other contact information, as well as procedural tools such as examining parties under oath, which will help the juvenile court identify the appropriate court to contact. The Court also clarifies that while a record must be made of the communication between the courts, in the absence of any specification by the UCCJEA as to how courts must decline jurisdiction, the Court declines to require a written order. The Court also points out that if an out-of-state court declines to weigh in for lack of an open case, under the UCCJEA, the juvenile court can request another state to take various actions, including holding an evidentiary hearing.

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