In re C.L.S.

Happy New Year! The Vermont Supreme Court decided it would start 2020 with a bang, with an opinion about jurisdiction in CHINS cases. This case might make the most sense with an explanation about how these cases work. Juvenile court is, by statute, entirely confidential. If you don’t have a chance or a reason to go there, you wouldn’t really get to learn how it works. Here we go.

A family comes onto the radar of the Department for Children and Families (DCF) in some way. This usually starts as a report made to the DCF reporting line. DCF then either opens an assessment or an investigation, depending on the severity of the situation. It’s very common for a report to come in, for a DCF worker to assess the case, and for the family in question to get some help (services, referrals, etc.) from DCF without ever going to court. This is good.
If the circumstances warrant, though, DCF will file an affidavit with the court, alleging that the circumstances surrounding the situation rise to the level that the child in question is in need of care and supervision, or CHINS. This can take on several different forms. The most common form is that somehow the child is without proper parental care. This can include all sorts of things, like lack of food, medical or dental neglect, educational neglect, risk of harm due to various situations – the list is really limited only by whatever circumstance presents itself. 
If a CHINS case is commenced, the first step is to have a preliminary hearing where the parents (and sometimes the child, depending on the situation) are informed of the case. This can also include a temporary care hearing. This is a hearing on whether the child remains at home with the parents or is placed into temporary DCF custody. There isn’t always time to have a full-blown hearing on placement, so sometimes the parties have to come back to court on this part. The court is always going to be mindful of what’s in the best interest of the child, especially in terms of safety. In terms of procedure, a temporary care hearing decision isn’t an appealable order. I think that’s likely because these cases have statutory timelines, and are meant to move relatively rapidly. [Editor’s note: statutory timelines exist. In an ideal world we’d be able to follow them.]
The next step is to address the merits of the CHINS petition itself. Sometimes parents agree that the situation presented did rise to the level of CHINS, and they admit that on the record. Other times parents want to have a hearing on the merits of the petition and have the state prove the case. If the state does not prove the merits of the case, the case is dismissed. If merits is proven, or is admitted, the next step is to move to disposition. Disposition is the stage of the case where DCF prepares a plan for the court to order (or not). It describes the goal of the case, how long it’ll take to get there, and what the family needs to do to achieve the goal.
A merits finding is not a final appealable order. Disposition is a final appealable order. If a party doesn’t like what happened at temporary care or merits, it’s got to wait til disposition to appeal that part.
If a case gets to the point that the state files a termination of parental rights (TPR) petition after disposition, that re-sets things and the parties start anew with a new phase of the case. (There are times when a TPR gets filed as a part of the initial disposition plan; this isn’t one of those cases, so we aren’t discussing that circumstance here).
The point here is that if there’s a disposition order, and then a TPR order later on, a party only gets to appeal the TPR order. The party can’t have their TPR hearing, and then go back and say, “wait a second. I think what happened at the temporary care hearing was wrong. I’m appealing that.” Because at that point the court no longer has jurisdiction to deal with that earlier order. It’s moved on to the next final appealable order. 
Without going into all the facts of the case, that’s essentially what happened here. CLS was born in early 2018. The parents were an unmarried couple. Mother was already on DCF’s radar. It was alleged she used drugs during pregnancy, and also missed quite a bit of her prenatal care. When CLS was born, DCF stepped in and filed a CHINS affidavit. 
The parties had a temporary care hearing, where Father asked to have custody of the child. The hearing got started, but the court ran out of time and couldn’t finish it right away. The court ordered Father to do a urine test to ensure he wasn’t using drugs. He didn’t do the test, and when the parties returned a few days later to finish the hearing, the court was upset that Father didn’t follow through with the testing. For that and other reasons, the child stayed in DCF custody. 
At a later hearing, Mother agreed that when the CHINS petition was filed CLS was a child in need of care and supervision. Father did not make such an admission. There’s some legal support that Father’s admission wasn’t necessary to move the case forward. DCF filed a disposition plan that had a concurrent goal of either getting CLS home with a parent or that CLS would be adopted. This was ultimately ordered, and no party appealed. 
Then a TPR petition got filed, was litigated, and was found in favor of the state (meaning the parents’ rights were terminated and CLS could then be adopted by someone else). Both parents appealed. In his appeal, Father raised issues relative to the temporary care hearing.
SCOV went through the above analysis and affirmed the trial court. At this point, trying to go after the temporary care issues looked more like a collateral attack on a prior order. That isn’t authorized in cases like this. Although there potentially could have been an attack using Civil Rule 60 if the circumstances warranted, that wasn’t what was presented in this case. 
So, it seems that the takeaway here is to object early and often (ever object so much even you are annoyed with yourself? I’ve done that, but I also want to ensure we have a good record), and to appeal when you can. Because if you wait, you may have missed the chance to raise an issue.