A photo of the Colorado Supreme Court building. (Google Maps)
Colorado state lawmakers passed legislation in 2016 that aimed to improve and speed up the appeals process for child welfare cases. But five years later, their goal of resolving cases within six months remains a pipe dream.
Though state and federal changes improved the quality and thoroughness of the appeals system, they also inadvertently extended the process. Between 2015 and 2019, the delay in child welfare cases at the Colorado Court of Appeals increased from 175 days on average to 310, according to a recently released report.
A state task force commissioned by the Colorado Supreme Court in 2018 released more than a dozen recommendations on Tuesday for how the state can resolve appeals cases faster to reunite parents with their children. Key recommendations include more robust annual training for staff, attorneys and judges, updated courtroom technology and expanding the court’s electronic filing system to encompass child welfare cases.
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“Great strides have been made by juvenile courts, and far fewer of these issues now occur than when the Workgroup started its review,” the authors wrote in the report. “But it is imperative that the judicial branch continue to work to improve courtroom technology that allows for accurate and timely recording of hearings and trials.”
The 12-member Child Welfare Appeals Workgroup — which included judges, representatives from the Office of the Child’s Representative, attorneys, members of the Colorado Department of Human Services and representatives from Indian Child Welfare programs — will continue their work for two more years to monitor the implementation of their recommendations, provide annual trainings and continue to study additional areas for improvement.
Number of appeals cases more than doubled
One of the changes that occurred in 2016 that resulted in longer delays for appeal cases was the creation of the Office of Respondent Parents’ Counsel, which increased legal representation for parents involved in dependency and neglect cases. The increased access led to more appeals cases and more complex issues being raised on appeal, which created a backlog.
After the creation of this office, the number of dependency and neglect cases appealed increased from 137 in 2015 to over 300 per year in 2017 and 2018, according to the report.
For Ruchi Kapoor, who was a member of the working group and is the former appellate director for the Office of Respondent Parents’ Counsel, the most impactful recommendation outlined in the report is the increase in training.
“Not enough people are familiar with this area of the law,” Kapoor said, who is an attorney now working in private practice. “It’s (an) incredibly specialized, very niche area of practice.”
Between July 2016 and May 2019, approximately 35% of the records filed in appeals of dependency and neglect cases were incomplete, according to the report. Though improvements were made in 2020 to decrease that number to 27%, further improvements are needed, according to the report.
“Part of what can cause delay is if you have a newly appointed Court of Appeals judge or a staff attorney at the Court of Appeals looking at one of these dependency or neglect cases and having to come up to speed on this very weird intersection of civil procedure law and constitutional law,” she added. “So that training is really, really important.”
Here are some of the key recommendations for the Colorado Judicial Branch:
- Ensure that parents and relatives are asked about American Indian and Alaskan Native heritage, that notices are sent to all required tribes and that notices are accurate and complete and are immediately filed.
- Train new judges and court staff on ICWA compliance.
- Improve courtroom technology to ensure an accurate record and provide training to court reporters and transcribers about terminology and acronyms used in juvenile court cases.
- Ensure wider distribution and application of the Office of Respondent Parents’ Counsel training and policies for advising parents of their right to appeal.
- Require all attorneys involved in a case to review the electronically filed record within seven days and collaborate regarding perceived problems. If the appellate record is incomplete, the party must file a motion to complete the record and promptly contact the juvenile court to allow the court to prepare the record.
- Create instructions, forms, and samples for appellate briefs and filings submitted.
- Provide annual livestreamed and recorded training on appellate advocacy for judicial officers, trial attorneys, and appellate attorneys in child welfare cases.
- Colorado Supreme Court issue a change to permit law student externs to appear and participate in any civil proceeding before the Colorado Court of Appeals and Colorado Supreme Court as a training opportunity.
- Obtain additional resources to meet the increasing demands of this case class.
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