In re Shanaira C.

Connecticut Supreme Court

August 10, 2010

STANDING/RIGHT TO EVIDENTIARY HEARING

The Supreme Court determined in this case that the intervener-appellant, the biological father’s girlfriend, had standing to participate in a contested motion to revoke commitment/transfer of guardianship hearing, notwithstanding the trial court’s previous denial of the intervener’s motions for visitation and custody. The Court also held that parties have a statutory right to an evidentiary hearing on any contested motion to revoke commitment.

Shanaira had been removed from her father and his girlfriend’s house and placed in DCF’s temporary custody. The girlfriend successfully intervened in the case, but her motions for guardianship and visitation were denied. Shanaira was then adjudicated neglected and committed to DCF. Subsequently, DCF filed a motion to revoke commitment and transfer guardianship to the biological mother. The intervener, though present for the contested hearing, was not permitted to call or question witnesses.

On appeal, the appellate court agreed with the intervener that she had standing to participate in the contested hearing. However, the court found that the intervener’s due process rights were not violated because the nature of her interest in the case had changed since her motions for guardianship and visitation had been denied. Additionally, the court held that the limited participation afforded the intervener was harmless because the testimony she wanted to elicit occurred without her calling and questioning witnesses. Justice Borden, sitting on the appellate panel, vigorously dissented, objecting to the informal proceedings employed by the trial court and opining that such proceedings surely violated the intervener’s right to be heard on an important contested custodial issue.

The Supreme Court granted cert to review the case. The Court confirmed that the intervener did indeed have standing to participate in the contested revocation hearing and appeal the court’s decision, despite the court’s previous denials of her motions for visitation and guardianship. The Court further held that the denials of these motions did not necessarily diminish the intervener’s interest and ability to meaningfully contribute to the custodial hearing. The Court noted that a motion to intervene is granted if it is in the best interest of the child. In this case, the intervener’s motion was granted because she was in a close relationship with Shanaira, who called her “Mommy.” As such, per Practice Book § 35a-4, the intervener became a party to the neglect proceeding. It was proper to permit the intervener to participate in the contested dispositional hearing and to offer evidence regarding Shaniara’s best interests.

Additionally, the Court determined that the trial court improperly restricted the intervener’s participation in revocation of commitment hearing, holding that § 46b-129(m) and Practice Book § 35a-14 (c) implicitly require a full evidentiary hearing on a contested dispositional motion. The Court reasoned that § 46b-129(m) and Practice Book § 35a-14 (c) require the court to make specific factual findings in a contested revocation of commitment hearing, and allocates burdens of proof to the parties. A full evidentiary hearing must be afforded to allow the parties to present evidence so they can both establish facts and meet their burdens of proof.

The court noted that, despite the fact that some of the testimony that the intervener wanted to elicit had already been admitted, there was still harm to the intervener because her own questions might have led the court to a different conclusion on the custodial issue. As such the case was remanded for a new dispositional hearing.

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