In re Kaleb H.

Connecticut Supreme Court

August, 2012

AT ISSUE:  COMPETENCY EVALUATION OF PARENT

In this appeal of a neglect case, the Supreme Court granted cert to address whether, during proceedings to commit a minor child who has been adjudicated neglected to the custody of the commissioner of children and families, a respondent parent is entitled to a competency evaluation on the basis of her counsel’s stated belief that such an evaluation is warranted.  The respondent mother argued that the Court’s holding in In re AlexanderV., 223 Conn. 557, 566, 613 A.2d 780 (1992), that a parent facing termination of his or her parental rights is entitled to a competency evaluation when ‘‘the record before the [trial] court contains specific factual allegations that, if true, would constitute substantial evidence of mental impairment’’; (internal quotation marks omitted); should be extended to pre-termination commitment proceedings, and that the foregoing standard for triggering an evaluation was met in this case.  The Court specifically declined to decide whether the holding in In re Alexander V.should be extended to pre-termination hearings because it held that, regardless of whether due process may sometimes require a competency evaluation in the context of commitment proceedings, the record in the present case was insufficient to trigger the trial court’s purported obligation to conduct one.

The mother claimed that the record contained specific factual allegations that, if true, raised a reasonable doubt as to her competence. Specifically: her counsel’s good faith request prior to trial that a competency evaluation was necessary; counsel’s statement that the respondent did not recall agreeing to a neglect adjudication; counsel’s concern that the respondent could not  understand legal concepts or assist in her defense; the respondent’s limited intelligence, as reflected in the low IQ score included in an evaluator’s report; and the fact that the respondent had a conservator for her financial estate.  The Court agreed with the Appellate Court that these facts did not rise to the level of raising a reasonable doubt as to the mother’s competency.

The Court began its analysis by noting that ‘[b]y definition, a mentally incompetent person is one who is unable to understand the nature of the termination proceeding and unable to assist in the presentation of his or her case.’’ In re Alexander V., supra, 223 Conn. 563. A competent client, in contrast, ‘‘is able to provide [her] counsel with the data necessary or relevant to the

structuring of [her] case’’; id., 563–64; and ‘‘information to rebut evidence offered by the state . . . .’’ Id., 563. The test for competency is whether the respondent ‘‘has sufficient present ability to consult with [her] lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding—and whether [she] has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings . . . .’’.  Taylor v. Commissioner of Correction, 284 Conn. 433, 450, 936 A.2d 611 (2007).

Here, counsel for the respondent mother was newly appointed and the court did not abuse its discretion in determining that other evidence of the parent’s competency outweighed counsel’s concern, including the court’s previous observations of the respondent parent during the most recent court hearings.  The record also contained a psychological report regarding the mother which, while noting the respondent’s cognitive limitations, also made several findings that could reasonably reflect positively on the respondent’s competency.  The Supreme Court pointed to previous case law holding that the fact of a respondent parent’s mild mental retardation and conservatorship did not suggest incompetence for the purpose of appointing guardian ad litem, when other evidence demonstrated his ability to understand proceedings and assist in presentation of case. In re Brendan C., 89 Conn. App. 511, 522–23, 874 A.2d 826, cert. denied, 274 Conn. 917, 879 A.2d 893, cert. denied, 275 Conn. 910, 882 A.2d 669 (2005); see also State v. Bethea, 167 Conn. 80, 88, 355 A.2d 6 (1974) (counsel’s representation that client was of limited intelligence and had difficulty in communicating was insufficient to raise doubt as to his competency to understand proceedings and assist in defense).

Connecticut Appellate Court
October 25, 2011

Competency Examination

 

The question in this appeal is whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying the respondent mother’s request for a competency examination at a motion to revoke the child’s commitment to the Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families (“Department”). The court upheld the trial court’s decision to deny the request primarily based on the conclusion that the respondent mother did not raise specific factual allegations sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt as to her competence – and that the court, though observation and assessment during the proceedings, was in the best position to assess whether she (respondent mother) behaved rationally at that time.

The facts of this case revolved around an incident of domestic violence that transpired with the father of Kaleb’s siblings that occurred in March 2009 (when Caleb was four years of age). Despite interventions provided by the Department, the Department filed a neglect petition one year later in March 2010. On January 3, 2011, with Kaleb in the Department’s custody, the respondent mother filed a motion to revoke the commitment and motion for a new psychological examination – claiming that the first exam was “inaccurate as it was the first time she had taken a psychological evaluation and she was overwhelmed.”

The claim on appeal is that the denial of the request for a competency evaluation deprived the mother of her constitutional right to due process. Her argument relied on In re Alexander V., 223 Conn. 613 (1992), wherein the court utilized a two-pronged approach in considering whether to order a competency hearing in termination of parental rights hearings. Pursuant to Alexander V., due process requires a competency hearing only when (1) the parent’s attorney requests such a hearing, or (2) in the absence of such a request, the conduct of the parent reasonably suggests to the court the desirability of ordering such a hearing sua sponte. In either case, the court must determine whether the record before it contains specific factual allegations that, if true, would constituted substantial evidence of mental impairment. Such evidence is substantial if it “raises a reasonable doubt about the [parent’s] competency.” Id. At 566.

In this case, the respondent sought to extend the Supreme Court’s holding of Alexander V. to commitment proceedings. Because the respondent did not allege specific allegations that would cast doubt on her competency, the court refused to extend the protections afforded in Alexander V. to commitment proceedings. In this case, the court could not find that the respondent made specific factual allegations sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt as to the mother’s competency, and it rejected the respondent’s assertion that because she never agreed to the prior neglect adjudication, she was somehow incompetent to do so. The respondent’s prior testing had revealed mild mental retardation – this did not necessarily implicate her competence to assist in the commitment proceeding. In addition, prior court proceedings did not raise the type of red flags with the trial judge that might have implicated the respondent mother’s competency.

JS (10/11)

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