In re Travis R.

Connecticut Appellate Court

80 Conn. App. 777 (2004)

January 6, 2004

 

The Appellate Court tackled the issue of whether a respondent mother’s claim that she was coerced into consenting to the termination of her parental rights in respect to her two minor children constituted grounds for opening the termination judgments. In a brief, but thoughtfully crafted opinion, the court concluded that based on the overwhelming factual evidence presented in Travis R., the respondent could not meet the legally sufficient burden of demonstrating “duress” for purposes of negating the termination consent.

After several years of Department of Children and Families (“Department”) involvement with the respondent mother and her two children, the Department filed termination petitions against the respondent in September 2000. On the second day of trial on the termination proceedings one year later, the respondent consented to the termination of her parental rights pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. § 17a-112(b), now (i). The court thoroughly canvassed both the respondent and her attorney, after which it concluded that the respondent had provided her consent in a knowing and voluntary manner. In January 2002, the respondent filed a motion, pro se, to open the judgments terminating her parental rights. After a two day hearing in August 2002, the court denied the motion to open on the grounds that the respondent failed to demonstrate duress, and that opening the judgments would not be in the best interest of the children.

On appeal, the court analyzed whether the respondent had met the four part test to demonstrate duress, which constitutes: (1) a wrongful act, or threat (2) that left the victim no reasonable alternative, and (3) to which the victim in fact acceded, and that (4) the resulting transaction was unfair to the victim. It debunked the respondent’s claim that a Department social worker had threatened her that failure to consent to termination would prevent her from seeing her children and that the department would initiate termination proceedings against her newborn child. Fully crediting the social worker’s testimony, the court found no actual threat – noting that witness credibility provided the necessary support for its conclusions. While the court did not dismiss the stress and emotional nature of a termination proceeding for a respondent parent, the question of whether the “victim” felt coerced was not at issue – what mattered was whether the actual act of threat underlying the coercion was wrongful.

The court also indicated that the evidence clearly supported the placement of the children with the respondent’s aunt and uncle, their placement for almost three years preceding the termination. The children’s emotional and behavioral stability indicated that their best interests were clearly served by not opening the termination judgment.

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