In re Jorden R.

Supreme Court

October 6, 2009

TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS/STATUTORY CONSTRUCTION

 

In this significant termination of parental rights appeal, not only did the Supreme Court re-instate the trial court’s decision to terminate the respondent mother’s parental rights, the Court took the unusual step of vacating the opinion of the appellate court, which held 1) that the state failed to demonstrate that the mother could not benefit from reunification services, and 2) that the state could not show that the mother was unwilling or unable to benefit from reunification services unless it had already provided her reasonable assistive efforts.

The Supreme Court concluded that the first issue was moot on appeal and therefore the appellate court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to review the claim, and that the court’s analysis of the reasonable efforts requirement was contrary to the express language of Conn. Gen. Stat. 17a-112(j). This case began after infant Jorden suffered severe and inexplicable injuries while in the care of his parents. DCF moved to terminate parental rights shortly after the child’s initial removal on the ground that the child was harmed as a result of the parents’ acts of “commission or omission.” At trial, DCF successfully alleged that the parents were unable to benefit from services, thus relieving the department of its obligation to provide rehabilitation and reunification services.

The Appellate Court affirmed the “omission/commission” ground for termination, reasoning that because the child suffered injuries in the care of his parents for which no adequate explanation was offered, there was sufficient evidence to support the trial court’s conclusion. However, the Appellate Court held that the trial court erroneously found that the mother was unable or unwilling to benefit from reunification services. The appellate court noted that the trial court found the respondent “facially complied” with the specific steps ordered for her. Additionally, although there was evidence that the mother briefly renewed her relationship with the physically abusive father, the record also demonstrated that the mother quickly terminated that relationship, continued with appropriate counseling and sought a restraining order against the father. The appellate court determined that the trial court’s factual finding that the mother could not or would not benefit from these services was clearly erroneous given ample evidence in the record of the mother’s efforts and progress with services and visitation.

The Supreme Court first noted that the termination statute requires the state to demonstrate that it has made reasonable efforts to reunify a family, unless in the same proceeding, the court finds that the parent is unable or unwilling to benefit from reunification efforts. Therefore, to the extent that the appellate court ruling could be construed as requiring the state to make a predicate showing that reasonable efforts were made to reunify the family prior to a court’s determination that such efforts were unnecessary, that ruling was reversed.

Additionally, the Supreme Court vacated the appellate court’s holding that the trial court erroneously found that the mother was unable or unwilling to benefit from reunification services. The Court noted that though the trial court found a) that the state hade made reasonable efforts and b) that the mother was unable and unwilling to benefit from such efforts, the mother only appealed the second finding. As either finding is sufficient to support a termination decision, the failure to appeal both findings rendered the solitary claim moot. Accordingly, the appellate court did not have jurisdiction to decide the claim and the Supreme Court vacated that portion of the decision. In so vacating, the Supreme Court opined that there was ample evidence in the trial court record to support the court’s factual findings in this regard.

Finally, on a separate issue, the Supreme Court held that it was not an abuse of discretion for the trial court to preclude testimony from the respondent’s independent evaluator where the independent evaluator had viewed the confidential court evaluation without the respondent having notified the parties or sought permission to disclose the report from the court. Such improper disclosure was a violation of law, as well as a violation of the father’s privacy rights. The trial court was within its discretion to order preclusion as a remedy for the violation.

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