ARVADA, CO - OCTOBER 26: Attorney James S. Hardy presents his arguments in The People of the State of Colorado v. Jose Ornelas-Licano case to the seven members of the Colorado Supreme Court at Pomona High School before an audience of students on October 26, 2021 in Arvada, Colorado. The court’s visit to the high school is part of the Colorado judicial branch’s Courts in the Community outreach program. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

The Colorado Supreme Court found a Park County judge lacked the legal authority to order two siblings to visit with their brother as part of the latter's child welfare proceedings.

Although Colorado law charges local departments of human services with promoting "frequent contact" between siblings in foster care and gives foster children the right to be "actively involved in each other's lives" if they so choose, District Court Judge Stephen A. Groome ordered the siblings of S.A., who was the subject an abuse or neglect case, to engage in therapeutic visits with him.

The Supreme Court found Groome went too far because the siblings were not themselves part of the court proceedings.

"Though the Foster Youth Siblings Bill of Rights, in totality, evinces a strong legislative desire to promote and encourage sibling relationships for foster youth, we do not read any of the provisions, nor the statute in its entirety, as granting juvenile courts personal jurisdiction over (other) siblings," wrote Justice Maria E. Berkenkotter in the June 13 opinion.

Child welfare matters, known legally as dependency and neglect cases, begin when counties receive a report and can potentially end with a judge terminating one or more parents' rights. In between, local agencies file a court petition in dependency and neglect. As a result, there could be a treatment plan that, if successfully completed, would terminate the court's jurisdiction over the case.

S.A. and his two younger siblings came under the care of adoptive parents. However, in 2020 S.A. reportedly acted out against the other two children and had both homicidal and suicidal ideations. The parents requested S.A. be placed in foster care, and the Park County Department of Human Services filed a petition in dependency and neglect.

S.A., and not his siblings, was subject to the proceedings.

Groome, who oversaw the case, at one point ordered the two other siblings to engage in therapeutic visits with S.A. The parents objected and the Supreme Court elected to hear their appeal directly.

Berkenkotter, in the court's opinion, acknowledged the question before the justices was not whether S.A. would benefit from visits with his siblings, but whether state law enabled Groome to give an order to non-parties to S.A.'s case.

Of the various rights and responsibilities outlined in the Foster Youth Siblings Bill of Rights, which are the government's obligation to carry out, Berkenkotter explained those rights do not grant courts jurisdiction over other children. Nor do the legislature's findings in the Children's Code that it is beneficial for a child in foster care to be able to "continue relationships with his or her brothers and sisters" allow for binding orders on third parties.

"A legislative declaration that sibling relationships are beneficial is not also necessarily a grant of personal jurisdiction such that courts can compel non-parties to attend therapeutic visitation," she wrote.

Berkenkotter clarified that juvenile judges do have legal authority to honor the various encouragements of sibling interaction enshrined in law. For example, judges can order counties to place foster children within a close geographic distance of their siblings, notify a dependent or neglected child about changes in their siblings' placement, or give an explanation if contact with siblings is restricted.

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

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