Connecticut Appellate Court
85 Conn. App. 528 (2004)
October 12, 2004
In a thoughtful decision that evokes significant emotional hand ringing, the appellate court affirmed the termination of parental rights of a mother’s two sons. The court wrestled with the emotional nature of whether the termination was in the best interest of the children while also tackling the interesting question of whether the present appellate standard of review in TPR cases, that of “clearly erroneous,” violates a respondent parent’s due process rights.
The respondent mother’s two children were born in 1993 and 1998. The Department of Children and Families (“Department”) originally intervened in 1997, filing a neglect petition and subsequently taking custody of both children in 1999. The record is replete with numerous commitments, orders of temporary custody, modifications of dispositions to reflect the mother’s progress in meeting the Department’s goals, and Department re-involvement with commitment and extensions of commitment. The Department eventually filed termination of parental rights petitions in May 2002, alleging abandonment, neglect and failure to achieve personal rehabilitation, and that there was no ongoing parent-child relationship between the mother and her boys. In November 2002, the court terminated the respondent mother’s parental rights, finding by clear and convincing evidence that the respondent exercised poor judgment in regard to her children, and that she took “no responsibility for anything” that transpired.
In reviewing the trial court’s decision, the court admitted that a “loving relationship” still existed between the children and their mother, despite all of the instability that resulted from the numerous removals and commitments. The court appeared to rely heavily on the expert testimony of the children’s psychologist, who opined that permanency and stability were paramount and outweighed the existing bond between the boys and their mother. Despite the “heartbreaking situation” that existed because of the existing relationships, the trial court’s “thorough and thoughtful” findings regarding the best interest of the children carried the day, meeting the clear and convincing standard of proof, and therefore not subject to modification or reversal as clearly erroneous.
The court then tackled the respondent mother’s contention that the “clearly erroneous” standard of appellate review should be discarded in favor of a de novo review. This prompted a thorough review of the tenets of procedural due process, complete with a primer of the three-part Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 334 (1976), test. As to part one of the test (the private interest affected by official action), the gravity, severity and permanency of termination weighed in favor of the respondent mother. In reviewing part two of the test (the risk of erroneous deprivation through procedures used), the court rebuffed the respondent’s claim that determination of TPR cases by a judge (without a jury), at a standard less than “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and pursuant to a statutory scheme that doesn’t require the trial court to make a finding that a less restrictive means to protect the child is available before termination, all require a de novo appellate review for TPR cases. Here, the court found that the “clearly erroneous” standard of review comports with due process, and indicated that the respondent did not present any explanation or authority as to how the additional formalities would result in superior safeguards for parents involved in TPR proceedings. Thus, the second prong of the test tilts toward the state.
As to the third Mathews factor (the Government’s interest, including fiscal and administrative burdens), the court found that the respondent’s contention that a de novo review system would result in a “duplication of efforts and therefore would burden our judicial resources.” The costs involved swayed the court to find that the third part of the test favored the state as well. Adding up the tally, the court found that the respondent failed to demonstrate a violation of her procedural due process rights, and therefore affirmed the trial court’s decision.
The case may be accessed by going to the Judicial Branch website atwww.jud.state.ct.us/external/supapp/Cases/AROap/AP85/85ap511.pdf
Filed in Tags: Abuse and Neglect
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