In re Tremaine

Appellate Court

October 13, 2009

TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS/ FAILURE TO REHABILITATE/SPLIT DECISION

 

In a markedly split decision, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision to terminate the respondent mother’s parental rights on failure to rehabilitate grounds. A primary issue at trial was whether the mother’s apparent progress with substance abuse treatment and her current parenting of a newborn child were sufficient to demonstrate that she could resume a responsible parental role in young Tremaine’s life. The trial court held that the mother’s ongoing struggles with dysfunctional behavior, lack of employment, and transient living, combined with her uneven visitation record, warranted a finding that she had not constructively rehabilitated. The court noted the mother’s progress with substance abuse treatment and the fact that the mother had not tested positive for drugs for a long period. However, the court observed that her care of the newborn was both “marginal” and newfound and therefore could not support a finding that she had gained an ability to care for Tremaine.

The dissent disagreed, contending that the trial court’s memorandum of decision lacked support for both the adjudicative and dispositional findings. The dissent pointed out that the evidence undisputedly demonstrated that at the time of the termination trial, the mother had made marked progress with substance abuse treatment, was living in the community with a family support network, caring for her newborn child and was visiting regularly with baby Tremaine. Furthermore, there was no evidentiary basis to conclude that the mother was unable to benefit from the services she received or that she could not, within a reasonable period of time, fulfill the remaining specific steps, stable housing and legal income, particular given her sobriety.

The dissent noted its previously stated opinion that “where the factual findings implicate a [respondent’s] constitutional rights and the credibility of witnesses is not the primary issue … a scrupulous examination of the record [should be undertaken] to ensure that the findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Here, the dissent added, it would reverse even under the clearly erroneous standard of review as the trial court “failed to support its termination decision with any supporting evidence, much less by clear and convincing evidence.”

As to disposition, the dissent contended that there was no factual support in the memorandum of decision for the finding that termination of parental rights was in the child’s best interests. Rather, the trial court made a mere “conclusory determination that the child’s best interest would be served by termination.” The court also failed to explain its consideration of the seven dispositional factors outlined in CGS 17a-112(k). Moreover, the trial court’s decision contained “sheer speculation” regarding the child’s adoptive prospects. At the time of trial, the child had been living with a foster family since birth. Because the foster family had decided not to adopt him, he was being transferred to a relative pre-adoptive family, but the family had not yet met certain licensing requirements. Therefore, it was speculative to assume that the proposed adoptive family would become licensed and eventually adopt the child. At the same time, Tremaine was visiting with his mother regularly and her actions during visitation were deemed appropriate. According to the dissent, at trial the state did not present any specific information about the child except for his date or birth and the fact that he was born with cocaine in his system. Indeed, even the court-appointed psychologist, Dr. Kelly Rogers, testified that he did not have enough information to advocate for termination.

Lastly, the dissent concluded that the state had not made reasonable efforts to reunify Tremaine and his mother. First, though DCF knew of the mother’s progress with substance abuse treatment and that she was caring for her newborn child, it did not increase the frequency of her visitation (which had been reduced due to previous failures). Second, although DCF indicated that it could not find subsidized housing for the respondent as long as she was drug dependent, the agency failed to make further efforts to assist with housing once DCF learned of the mother’s sobriety.

 

 

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