In re Stephen M.

Connecticut Appellate Court

August 12, 2008

 

Termination of Parental Rights/Reversal

In this termination of parental rights appeal, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the state’s termination petition, holding that the trial court improperly re-considered and rejected the underlying finding of neglect made in a previous proceeding. The children had been removed from the home and adjudicated neglected as a result of the father’s alleged sexual abuse. The parents did not appeal the neglect adjudication. The state eventually moved to terminate the parents’ rights, alleging they failed to rehabilitate, there was no ongoing parent-child relationship, and through acts of omission and commission the parents denied their children necessary guidance and care.

During the termination trial, the trial court questioned the basis for the removal of the children and held that the alleged sexual abuse by the father appeared to have been “pre-textual.” The court dismissed the termination petition, rejected the state’s permanency plan of adoption, and ordered the state to file a new permanency plan with a goal of reunification.

The appellate court held that the trial court’s reconsideration of the neglect findings was improper. First, the court noted that Conn. Gen. Stat. § 17a-112, which sets forth the parameters regarding termination of parental rights, provides that a termination petition may be granted where a child has been “found by the Superior Court … to have been neglected or uncared for in a prior proceeding … and the parent of such child has held that a trial court may not reconsider the underlying neglect adjudication.” Accordingly, the appellate court held that the state did not have to prove at the termination hearing that the children were neglected, only that they had been found to be neglected in a prior proceeding. The appellate court disagreed with the parents’ argument that the trial court was permitted to reconsider the issue under the clear and convincing standard of proof. The court concluded that principles of finality, efficiency as well as the best interests of children support the conclusion that findings in earlier child welfare proceedings cannot be attached collaterally in later proceedings. The only way to challenge the neglect finding is to appeal in a timely manner from the original adjudication.

The appellate court also agreed with the state’s argument that the trial court failed to give preclusive effect to the earlier finding, attendant to the neglect adjudication, that further efforts to reunify the father with his son were inappropriate. The father did not appeal the court’s earlier finding. The appellate court pointed to Conn. Gen. Stat. § 17a-111(b) which provides that the trial court may grant a termination petition if it finds by clear and convincing evidence that DCF has made reasonable efforts to reunify the child and parent, “except that such finding is not required if the court has determined [previously] that such efforts are not required.”

Finally, the appellate court found that the lower court’s finding as to the parent-child relationship between the son and the respondents was clearly erroneous. The court noted the testimony of a clinical social worker that the son did not have a recollection of his life prior to foster care and that he did not mention the parents during therapy sessions. The appellate court acknowledged that there can be no finding of a “lack of ongoing parent child relationship” if the lack of relationship is a direct result of the fact that the child was in foster care. However, the court held that based on its own review of the record, it could not discern that the lack of ongoing parent-child relationship was the fault of the department. The court concluded that there was no evidence in the record to support the court’s conclusion that the lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship was a direct result of the son’s being in foster care. (citing In re Alexander C., 67 Conn. App. 417, 424, aff’d, 262 Conn. 308 (2003.)

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