In re Joseph L.

Connecticut Appellate Court

January 29, 2008

The parents in this termination of parental rights appeal had a long and significant history with DCF due to ongoing substance abuse, domestic violence and ongoing child abuse and neglect issues. The two children involved in this case were the mother’s ninth and ten children and the father’s fourth and fifth. None of the respondents’ other children lived in the parents’ care.

After a series of allegations of domestic violence, physical abuse of the children, physical neglect and abandonment, and substance abuse by both parents, DCF removed the two children in 2004. In November, 2005, DCF filed to terminate the parents’ parental rights on the ground that they had not sufficiently rehabilitated and could not resume a responsible position in the lives of their children in a reasonable period of time. After 4 days of trial, in June 2006 the superior court approved termination of the respondents’ parental rights.

The parents appealed the decision arguing that they had substantially rehabilitated and that the court erroneously found that they could not fully rehabilitate within a reasonable period of time. The record demonstrated that the parents had complied with some of the court ordered specific steps. The mother had no ongoing criminal justice involvement, she maintained housing, she attended an outpatient parenting class and provided regular urine and hair sample tests for substance abuse. She also visited with her children regularly. However, the mother had positive hair tests until late, 2005, refused to participate in a program for domestic violence services because she claimed there was no violence in her relationship with the respondent father, never obtained a job and remained financially dependent on the father for support. The father maintained housing, engaged in parenting classes and substance abuse treatment, completed a domestic violence program and engaged in individual and couples counseling. He did not participate in family counseling and was not employed consistently.

The appellate court found that the record amply demonstrated that the respondents had not sufficiently rehabilitated. The father continued to demonstrate inappropriate and controlling behavior towards the mother and the children, maintaining surveillance cameras both in and outside of the home to control the mother’s conduct. The mother continued to be completely financially and emotionally dependent on the father despite his abusive and controlling conduct. Additionally, the court found that the parents’ true progress with services was minimal and that they contributed to the lack of progress by failing to fully comply with services or be fully candid with service providers.

The court also relied on the testimony of two expert clinicians who performed evaluations of the parents. The father was determined in 1996 to have anti-social personality a disorder; a condition that the psychiatrist testified at trial does not improve over time. While the father argued that the trial court should not have credited the doctor’s opinion given the date of the evaluation, the appellate court noted that additional evidence in the record amply demonstrated the father’s lack of progress with his disorder. Another expert evaluated the parents in 2004 and 2005 and testified that the mother’s history of relationship problems, substance abuse and irresponsibility would continue to have a significant and negative impact on her parenting ability. Accordingly, the appellate court held that the record supported a finding that the parents failed to rehabilitate.

The parents also contended that termination of parental rights was not in the best interest of the children because they maintained a strong bond with the children and a consistent visitation relationship. The court acknowledged that although the children did have an attachment to their parents and enjoyed visits, that this affection would not preclude termination. The appellate court noted that even the children’s attorney recommended termination of parental rights. The trial court made all of the requisite statutory findings and the parents’ lack of progress with services rendered them unable to care for the children on a day to day basis.

Additionally, the parents argued that the court’s failure to appoint a separate guardian ad litem affected the outcome of the trial. The father had previously moved for the appointment of a separate GAL on the grounds that the children’s attorney was not advocating for J.’s express wish to return to his father’s care. The court denied the motion after the child’s attorney indicated that her client was inconsistent in his statements and developmentally incapable of rendering a decision on his needs or desires. The appellate court determined that there was an insufficient record to determine whether a GAL was warranted. The father offered no proof in support of his motion nor did he ask for an evidentiary hearing on the matter. Furthermore, the absence of a GAL did not affect the outcome of the trial in that the GAL is not obligated to represent the stated interest of the child, but rather is compelled to make recommendations regarding the child’s best interest. The trial court having already found that termination was in the best interests of the child, the appellate court could not see how the appointment of a separate GAL would have furthered the father’s cause.

Finally, the parents contended that the trial court erred when it failed to qualify the children’s therapist as an expert. The therapist, who testified at trial regarding the bond between the children and their parents, worked at the group home where the children resided. She had thousands of hours of supervised experience, but had obtained her counselor’s license only weeks prior to trial. Accordingly, while the court accepted her testimony and considered it, the court declined to qualify the therapist as an expert. The appellate court held that the trial court has wide discretion to in ruling on the qualifications of expert witnesses.

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