Earlier this year, a new free-range parenting law was passed. The law narrows the definition of neglect and excludes reasonable activities kids can do without adult supervision like walking or biking to nearby businesses, schools or recreational facilities, playing outside and being alone in a safe area.
In 1974, a Colorado Supreme Court opinion looked at an equally difficult dependency and neglect matter — what standards need to be met to terminate parental rights?
A child welfare worker with the Boulder County Department of Public Welfare on June 28, 1971 filed a petition for dependency alleging a child, named in court documents as M.M., didn’t have proper parental care and was in an unfit home. The petition, which was granted, declared M.M. a dependent child and terminated all parental rights.
In a hearing on Aug. 18, 1971, a public health nurse for the Boulder County Health Department testified she visited M.M.’s home in June in response to an anonymous call. She testified she was convinced M.M. would die if he didn’t get immediate medical attention, according to the court record. She persuaded M.M.’s mother to take the child to a hospital, but the mother refused to sign an admission form without first talking to her husband, who was away on a business trip.
The welfare department got a court order giving the department temporary custody of M.M. and the department authorized the hospital to care for the child. When M.M’s father got back in town, he signed the admission form.
The court opinion noted testimony about M.M.’s condition wasn’t contested. M.M. was malnourished, had a slight fever and had sustained a linear skull fracture. The testimony also established M.M. was developmentally stunted as a result of malnutrition and hadn’t gained much weight in his first six months of life.
M.M.’s parents, according to the court opinion, were practicing vegetarians as required by their religion. They had two other young children who were healthy and raised on the same vegetarian diet as M.M. According to M.M.’s parents, M.M.’s skull fracture happened when he kicked himself out of his mother’s arms and fell on his forehead around five weeks before the welfare department intervened. M.M.’s parents were very concerned for his welfare but when he didn’t appear to suffer any adverse effects, they did nothing.
According to the court opinion, both parents said they were willing to consent to continued medical supervision of M. M. if the court ordered that. But the district court, while noting that parental neglect wasn’t intentional, determined all parental rights with respect to M. M. should be terminated.
M.M.’s parents appealed but didn’t argue over the finding of neglect, instead they asked the state Supreme Court to determine if a child is found neglected and dependent if the court must also terminate parental rights.
“The termination of parental rights is a drastic remedy,” the Colorado Supreme Court opinion noted. “The state directs many laws to the preservation of the family and the protection of the home.”
The court determined care and guidance for children adjudicated dependent and neglected should be in their own home “and the court should not remove him from the custody of his parents except when his welfare and safety or the protection of the public would be endangered.”
The state Supreme Court cited rulings in other states like Washington, Oregon and Michigan in its decision. It noted those courts recognized termination of parental rights “is a drastic remedy in which a most serious interest of the parents is jeopardized.”
But the Colorado Supreme Court also acknowledged the state appellate court pointed out in 1973 “that the [state] Children’s Code provides alternative methods of disposition for children adjudicated neglected and dependent,” but the code established no standards and guidance to the courts in choosing between the alternatives.
The court found that in order to determine that the best interest of a dependent or neglected child is to terminate parental rights, the trial court needs to find the situation that contributed to the finding of dependency or neglect is likely to continue into the future. “Further, the court must find that under no reasonable circumstances can the welfare of the child be served by a continuation of the parent-child relationship,” the opinion said.
The state Supreme Court reversed the termination of parental rights and remanded the case back to the trial court to make the appropriate findings to terminate parental rights in the interest of M.M.