In re Jordan T.

Connecticut Appellate Court

March 9, 2010

TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS: INCARCERATION, BEST INTERESTS, POST-ADOPTION CONTACT

This termination of parental rights appeal raises important questions regarding the impact of parental incarceration on a court’s finding that a parent has not or cannot rehabilitate, and the legal significance that post-adoption contact with a child’s biological family should have on the court’s “best interests” finding.

Jordan was taken into DCF’s temporary custody in January, 2007 after her mother was arrested for participating in an armed robbery of a fast food restaurant. While out on bond, the respondent mother ostensibly complied with the specific steps, finding full-time employment and suitable housing. She completed a parenting education course, began out-patient counseling and visited often and appropriately with her child. In November, she pled guilty to the criminal charge and was incarcerated in January, 2008. The earliest possible date the respondent could be released from incarceration was deemed to be January, 2010. Subsequent to the respondent’s incarceration, the Department filed a petition to terminate her parental rights on the ground that she had failed to rehabilitate or could not rehabilitate within a reasonable period of time given the age and needs of her child. The court ordered evaluation found that the mother faced a number of mental-health related issues, including an adjustment disorder, a history of alcohol dependency and adult relational problems. The evaluator testified that he would not recommend reunification until the mother had been back in the community for at least a year. Additionally, the evaluator found that the reported difficulties Jordan encountered visiting her mother in prison were likely due to the stressful prison environment and the fact that she was anxious for reunification to take place. Given that immediate reunification was not an option for the child, the evaluator recommended the “least harmful” alternative of allowing Jordan to find permanency with another family. The evaluator also determined that while Jordan had a few “psychological parents,” her primary bond was with her mother and her maternal family and that disruption of these “powerful ties” in their entirety may cause her considerable harm.

The respondent mother argued that the trial court wrongfully terminated her parental rights because of her status as an incarcerated parent, a finding that is not permitted when the ground for termination is “abandonment.” The respondent claimed that the evidence showed she complied with the steps and the permanency plan was reunification up until the time she was incarcerated on the robbery charge. Additionally, the evidence also clearly showed that Jordan had a strong bond with her and the extended biological family. The respondent asked the court to find, via analogy to “abandonment” cases, that where the alleged ground for termination is “failure to rehabilitate” a trial court may not sustain the petition solely on the basis of the parent’s incarceration. The appellate court did not squarely address that legal question. Instead, the court held that the trial court did not rely exclusively on the fact of the mother’s incarceration, but rather focused on the mother’s failure to admit to ongoing alcohol dependency, the evaluator’s conclusion that the mother faced myriad mental health challenges, and the likelihood that the child could not returned to her mother’s care for at least two years, if not longer.

The appellate court also rejected the respondent’s claim that the trial court erroneously denied her the opportunity to question the foster parent regarding the foster parent’s alleged reluctance to permit ongoing visitation contact between Jordan and her biological family. The evaluator reported that the foster parent expressed unwillingness to permit personal contact and that such reluctance may be due to concerns about Jordan’s well-being as well as insecurity about the strength of the bond between Jordan and her maternal family. At the time of trial, the court sustained the state’s “relevancy” objection to the respondent’s questions to the foster mother about this issue. On appeal, the court held that the trial court essentially found that the information sought was cumulative of the evaluator’s report and testimony, and therefore unnecessary not irrelevant. The appellate court determined, therefore, that the court’s ruling did not constitute an abuse of discretion.

Finally, the appellate court denied the respondent’s claim that the termination was not in Jordan’s best interests given her “powerful” bond with her biological family. Though the appellate court acknowledged the evidence in the record regarding Jordan’s feelings towards her mother and extended family, the court credited the trial court’s permissible reliance on contrary evidence regarding well-being, including the evaluator’s ultimate conclusion that because reunification was not possible within a reasonable time period, the least detrimental alternative was supporting the foster placement.

 

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