In re Leah S.

Connecticut Appellate Court

96 Conn. App. 1 (2006)

June 13, 2006

 

In an important decision that reverberates as an ongoing warning to the state’s child welfare agency, the Appellate Court upheld a motion for contempt against the state Department of Children and Families (“Department”) for noncompliance the court orders regarding the care of a child in the Department’s care. The essential element in the case was whether the Department’s noncompliance of court orders was willful, or merely negligent.

The case revolves around Leah, a girl who, along with her brother, had allegedly been abused and neglected by their parents. The Department took custody of Leah via an order of Temporary Custody in April 2003, alleging that her parents had failed to cooperate with physicians’ and the Department’s recommendations despite Leah’s extensive mental health history (which included a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, violent and destructive behavior, violence toward animals, previous psychiatric hospitalizations, suicidal and homicidal ideation, etc.). Despite court orders mandating therapeutic, residential placement, the Department continued to place Leah in a nontherapeutic foster home. In November 2003, Leah’s mother filed a contempt motion against the Department for failure to provide services outlined in previous court orders and that the Department had delayed the reunification of the family. The Superior Court found the Department in contempt and ordered the commissioner to pay $500 to Leah’s mother to assist with attorney’s fees.

On appeal, the Department first contended that the lower court’s orders were “ambiguous.” The court disagreed, indicating that under the standard necessary to hold a party in “indirect civil contempt,” an appellate court must reverse only if the trial court abused its discretion. Willfulness is the standard of conduct upon which a party must be judged in order for a finding of contempt to be exercised by the court. Here, the court ordered the Department to undertake specific steps to ameliorate the child’s condition and to make her safe. In an ironic twist – the Department had taken custody of Leah because the parents had failed to follow many of the physicians’ and department’s recommendations regarding Leah’s care and then did not undertake any of the steps it had mandated for the parents. The court found that the Department repeatedly failed to take action on Leah’s behalf as mandated by the court – and thus it is in no position on appeal to claim that contempt is an unreasonable punishment for “lack of success” regarding Leah’s care.

The Department’s second point on appeal was that the court abused its discretion by finding the Commissioner in contempt because there was insufficient evidence in the record to support a finding of contempt. This claim was rejected, as the court noted that the record revealed the Department was well aware of Leah’s specialized needs when it took her into its care in April 2003. For seven months, the Department transferred Leah from one nontherapeutic foster home to the next – for a total of four nontherapeuetic foster care placement, where she remained a danger to herself and others. The court seemed incensed with the Department’s failure to provide Leah with mental health treatment, failure to provide her foster parents with adequate support, failure to provide her parents with counseling classes designed to educate them on how to raise a child with severe mental health issues, and made no effort to facilitate counseling between Leah and her brother.

The case may be accessed by going the Judicial Branch website atwww.jud.state.ct.us/external/supapp/Cases/AROap/AP96/96AP271.pdf

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