In re Jason R

Connecticut Supreme Court
September 18, 2012

TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS/BURDEN OF PROOF/SPLIT DECISION

In this termination of parental rights appeal, the Supreme Court addresses whether the trial court improperly placed the burden of proof on the respondent mother to demonstrate that she had rehabilitated and could resume her role as a parent.

The trial court noted the respondent consistently made an effort to engage with DCF, her children and service providers. The court, however, was concerned with the mother’s cognitive limitations, her incremental and uneven progress with services, and her ongoing challenges with mental health issues and parenting.

On appeal, the respondent mother highlighted language from the court’s memorandum of decision as follows:

”As of the date of trial [the respondent] had not made significant progress to persuade the court by clear and convincing evidence that she had met the objectives identified by . . . [the evaluator] as important for  reunification.” …Although [the respondent] has worked hard to take advantage of those services and has completed some of them, she has not established to the court’s satisfaction that she is prepared educationally or emotionally to assume the primary care role of caring for her children.”

The Supreme Court held that the memorandum of decision, taken as a whole, indicated that the court required DCF to prove its case and that the statements above reflected the court’s view that the parent had not demonstrated true compliance or progress with the court-ordered specific steps.  Furthermore, the respondent mother, on two occasions, requested articulations from the trial court and both of these articulations further clarified the court’s conclusions that there was ample evidence in the record to support a termination of parental rights decision.  The Supreme Court further rejected the respondent’s claim that the trial court impermissibly used its articulations as a means to change, rather than clarify, its previous decision.  See Miller v. Kirshner, 225 Conn. 185 (1993).

Justice Zarella issued a dissenting opinion, writing that it appeared the court did in fact shift the burden of proof to the respondent parent.  The dissent noted that the majority relied, in part, on the principle that it should “read an ambiguous trial court record so as to support, rather than to contradict its judgment.”  However, the dissent reflected that this principle applies when the reviewing court must extrapolate facts from a sparse judgment, and not when the Court is reviewing whether the trial court applied the correct standard of proof.  Ultimately, the dissent concluded that “(1) a parent’s constitutional and statutory right to family integrity counsels in favor of strictly construing a trial court’s adherence to the procedural protections that were put in place to guarantee that fundamental right, (2) the court’s memorandum of decision contains statements unambiguously shifting the burden of proof to the respondent, and (3) the subsequent articulations could not correct the court’s initial misallocation of the burden of proof.”

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