In re Zion R.

Connecticut Appellate Court

Sept 1, 2009

TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS/REHABILITATION/BEST INTERESTS

This termination of parental rights appeal underscores the sometimes heartbreaking proposition that an even commendable personal progress will not defeat a claim that a parent has failed to achieve adequate “parental” rehabilitation. The case also highlights the influence that court-appointed evaluators can have on the findings of the trial court. In re Zion R involves a mother with a long history of problems with substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness and incarceration who was in the midst of a successful stay in a rigorous, long-term substance program when her parental rights were terminated on “failure to rehabilitate” grounds.

Prior to baby Zion’s removal in September, 2006, the respondent mother declined to accept or did not make progress with numerous services, including individual counseling, domestic violence services and shelter, and intensive family preservation services. In January, 2007, the mother voluntarily entered the long-term Youth Challenge program ,a structured substance abuse program with a religious focus. DCF told the mother that the program did not meet the needs of reunifying her with her child because of the duration of the program (12-18 months), the fact that the child could not live with the mother and bond with her in the program, and the difficulty the department would have in assessing the mother’s progress in learning to live in the community. Though, the Department offered several alternative residential programs where the mother and child could be placed together, the respondent decided to remain in Youth Challenge. In September, 2007, the Department filed for termination of parental rights.

At trial, the respondent pointed out that the Youth Challenge program was included as an identified service in the court-ordered specific steps, the so-called “blue print” for reunification agreed to by the parties at the onset of a child protection case. The respondent also offered testimony regarding the rigors and structure of the Youth Challenge program, her great degree of progress with program goals, and her achievement of greater freedom and responsibilities within the program. The respondent testified that she was looking for employment and seeking housing at the time of the trial.

While the trial court credited the respondent for her efforts with the Youth Challenge program, the court gave great weight to the report of the court appointed evaluator, who did not recommend reunification. The evaluator, who noted the respondent’s intellectual deficiencies and significant history of mental illness and substance abuse, determined that despite the mother’s recent success with services, her problems were deep seated and ingrained and he considered her a high risk for substance abuse relapse. He recommended that the mother be re-evaluated after six months in the community before reunification even be considered.

Referencing the evaluator’s report, the court concluded that the mother had not demonstrated an ability to live successfully in the community; she did not have a job or an apartment; she had not engaged in a recognized program for domestic violence counseling; and had not demonstrated how her mental health issues would be addressed in the future. The court determined that the respondent had demonstrated much “personal” rehabilitation, but had not shown that she had undergone “parental” rehabilitation. Specifically, the court found that the mother had not demonstrated that she could live in an unstructured environment and cope with the burdens of child rearing. The appellate court, citing numerous precedents, held that personal progress, and even compliance with court-ordered services does not automatically translate into a judicial finding that a parent has achieved a sufficient degree of rehabilitation necessary to parent a particular child. The appellate court also held that the trial court did not err when it relied on the evaluator’s report for a finding that the mother could not rehabilitate within a reasonably foreseeable period of time. Finally, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s best interests finding, holding that the court reasonably emphasized the young age of the child and the corresponding need for permanency when making a determination that termination of parental rights was warranted.


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