In re Christina M.

Connecticut Supreme Court

280 Conn. 474 (2006)

November 7, 2006

In this highly anticipated opinion, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that parents have standing to assert claims that their child was denied the right to effective counsel, but stopped short of addressing the key issues raised in the appeal – namely whether the conflict between a child’s express wishes and her attorney’s position at trial merits constitutional review.

The respondent parents appealed the trial court’s termination of their parental rights, arguing inter alia that their child’s counsel did not advocate for reunification despite the child’s stated desire to return to her parents’ care. Accordingly, the parents contended that the child’s right to counsel was violated. They further claimed that the trial court had an obligation, sua sponte, to address the conflict issue because there was evidence in the record that the child’s attorney was not advocating for the child’s expressed wishes. The state claimed that the parents did not have standing to raise such a claim on appeal.

The Court, citing In re Shaquanna M., 61 Conn. App. 592 (2001), rejected the State’s argument regarding standing, observing that “it is difficult to separate the right to federal due process of the [parent] from those of her children.” The Court determined that parents and children “have a mutual interest in the preservation of family integrity” and noted that “termination of parental status is irretrievably destructive of that most fundamental family relationship.” The Court reasoned that parents must have standing to raise claims related to the effectiveness of their child’s counsel because the child’s lawyer helps shape the court’s view of the child’s interest. Thus, a parent may be harmed if the child has inadequate counsel. The Court ultimately did not decide the issue of whether the child’s right to counsel is constitutionally-rooted.

As to the merits of the parents’ claim, the Court concluded that the record did not support the parents’ claim that a conflict existed between the child’s expressed wishes and her attorney’s position during trial. The Court looked to criminal court procedures for its analysis of the conflict argument. The Court noted that in criminal cases, a trial judge has an obligation to address a conflict issue when a timely objection has been raised or when there is sufficient evidence of a conflict on the record. The Court also noted that a trial judge may rely on the silence of a criminal defendant or his counsel in deciding whether a conflict of interest exists. The trial judge rightly depends on the good judgment of defense counsel who is “in the best position professionally and ethically to determine when a conflict of interest exists or will probably develop in the course of a trial.”

Applying the criminal conflict standard to the presence case, the Court concluded that there was insufficient evidence of a conflict in the record to warrant the judge sua sponte to intervene. Additionally, no one objected to the child’s attorney’s position at trial, the child’s attorney did not inform the court of a conflict, nor did the child’s attorney present evidence that would have put the court on notice that a conflict existed. While there was some evidence on the record of the child’s desire to be with her parents, the Court noted that this evidence was dated by the time of the termination trial and that there was more recent evidence that the child was bonded with the foster parents.

Although the parents lost on the merits of their appeal, this opinion is significant to the extent that parents and presumably children are now able to raise issues related to the effectiveness of each other’s counsel on appeal. The Court’s reasoning also seems to suggest that parents and children could raise other significant legal issues on each other’s behalf, such as a denial of due process.

However, the Court’s examination of the conflict question raises several questions as to the appropriateness of the analogy between a criminal and child welfare proceeding. In addition, the differences between the criminal and child welfare proceedings beg the question of how a court should ensure that children’s rights to effective counsel are vindicated. The Supreme Court however may revisit what it deems the “significant issues” raised by this appeal on another day.

This case may be accessed by going to the Judicial Branch website at www.jud.state.ct.us/external/supapp/Cases/AROcr/CR280/280CR1.pdf

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