2019.03.14 Case Law Summary

People in Interest of S.K., 2019 COA 36 (March 7, 2019)

After a petition was filed, parents stipulated that the child was abused or neglected through no fault of their own. During a neuropsych eval, the evaluator diagnosed both parents with varying forms of intellectual and developmental disabilities – which the county and GAL did not dispute. The juvenile court concluded that the parents’ disabilities severely limited their ability to provide appropriate care for the child. After some time, the parents’ rights were terminated.

On appeal, among other claims, the parents both challenged the adequacy of their treatment plans and whether reasonable accommodations to a treatment plan made pursuant to the ADA must be considered by the trial court when terminating parental rights. The court of appeals concluded that the juvenile court must consider reasonable accommodations when deciding whether the parents’ treatment plan is appropriate and whether reasonable efforts were made to rehabilitate the parent.

These reasonable accommodations must include making reasonable changes in departmental practices and services to accommodate the individual needs of parents. This requirement also applies to third-party providers of services. In other words, “absent reasonable modifications to the treatment plan and rehabilitative services offered to a disabled parent, a department has failed to perform its duty under the ADA to reasonably accommodate a disability and, in turn, its obligation to make reasonable efforts to rehabilitate the parent.”

Applying this reasoning, the court found that the department in this case had satisfied the requirements of the ADA. Specifically, the court rejected both parents’ assertions on appeal that there was a failure to provide reasonable accommodations since neither parent provided, on the record, examples of the accommodations they needed. The court then affirmed the termination order.

This is a bittersweet opinion for many reasons. It is a big win for disabled parents in the state, providing fertile ground for arguments to tailor treatment plans based on individualized assessments – it’s now clear that such individualized treatment is required for disabled parents if not all parents in child welfare cases. It should be noted, however, that the court of appeals seems to shift the burden back to parents to demonstrate what reasonable accommodations are required for such individualized treatment – a piece that is not contemplated by either the change in legislation last year nor by the ADA.

It is also bittersweet because this is an opinion that would have brought great joy to our friend Carrie Ann Lucas.

Congratulations to ORPC appellate attorneys Christy Vangaasbeek & Susan Baker – this is a monumental case!