June 6, 2023

June 2023

Mother appealed the termination of her parental rights with respect to her three children. The maternal grandmother filed a separate appeal challenging the judgments terminating Mother’s parental rights and the trial court’s denial of her motion to transfer guardianship. Mother, who has cognitive limitations and mental health needs, relied on the grandmother, who had been appointed her plenary guardian by the Probate Court, to make major decisions for her and to take care of the children since their birth. Two of the children have significant needs and require special services and treatment.  DCF first became involved with the family when concerns arose as to the two oldest, and an allegation of physical neglect was thereafter substantiated, as Mother and the grandmother were homeless, transient and not following through with treatment for the children.  The family then moved to Puerto Rico, where the youngest was born, and DCF had no contact with the family.

Two years later, DCF was contacted by school officials in Connecticut, who reported that the children had hygiene issues and that the children needed services. DCF then secured OTCs for all three children and filed neglect petitions on their behalf. When DCF reached out to Mother regarding her children, she was in Puerto Rico, and she directed DCF to follow up with the grandmother regarding the children’s needs. DCF attempted to engage the grandmother to receive services, but she often refused or failed to sign releases to authorize services. The grandmother also instructed Mother not to sign releases to authorize treatment for herself or the children. A GAL was appointed for Mother, and the grandmother filed a motion to intervene in the neglect proceedings. The children were adjudicated neglected and committed to DCF custody.

The grandmother filed a motion to transfer guardianship of the children to herself. DCF then filed TPR petitions as to Mother. During the TPR proceedings, an ex parte restraining order was issued against the grandmother to protect Mother. Thereafter, the trial court bifurcated the TPR trial from the proceeding on the grandmother’s motion to transfer guardianship. The Appeals Court held here:

1. Mother could not prevail on her claims that the trial court improperly concluded that DCF made reasonable efforts to reunify her with the children, that she failed to achieve a sufficient degree of personal rehabilitation, and that TPR was in the best interests of the children.

a. The trial court properly concluded that DCF had satisfied its statutory (§ 17a-112 (j) (1)) burden to make reasonable efforts to reunify Mother with the children.  Because the trial court did not make a finding that Mother was unable or unwilling to benefit from reunification efforts, and addressed only the reasonableness of the efforts made, Mother’s claim that there was insufficient evidence to support the court’s finding that she was unwilling to benefit from them, premised on the court’s finding that she had an intellectual disability that would make it difficult for her to be the primary caregiver, and DCF’s failure to offer wraparound services that would have engaged both Mother and the grandmother, improperly conflated the ground of unable or unwilling to benefit from reunification with the failure to rehabilitate language of § 17a-112 (j) (3) (b) (i). 

The claim that DCF had a duty or legal obligation to offer wraparound services to engage both Mother and the grandmother was without merit, as there was no authority cited by Mother suggesting that DCF’s burden in establishing that the reasonable efforts ground extended or applied jointly to a person whose parental rights were not the subject of the petition.  Moreover, even if there were a legal duty such that the court would be precluded from finding reasonable efforts, the record demonstrated that the grandmother was not a supportive parenting figure with whom Mother could responsibly partner in the raising of her children, as the grandmother was actively hostile to Mother’s ability to engage in services, was the subject of a protective order in which Mother was the protected party, a GAL was appointed for Mother as a result of conflicts with Mother over visitation, and the grandmother frustrated DCF’s efforts to work with them, particularly in instructing Mother not to sign any releases from DCF, which prevented and delayed services from being provided. 

Furthermore, there was sufficient evidence in the record to support the court’s reasonable efforts determination because, although Mother failed to sign releases required by DCF to provide services to her and the children, they nevertheless attempted to reunify her with the children by: providing psychological and psychiatric services in an attempt to determine her competency; providing weekly supervised visitation services, transportation and case management services; facilitating counseling and therapy for the children, which included observation with Mother with respect to the children; involving Mother in the children’s medical appointments; and referring her to parenting services.

 b. The trial court properly concluded that Mother failed to achieve a sufficient degree of personal rehabilitation pursuant to § 17a112 (j) (3) (B) as would encourage the belief that within a reasonable time, considering the ages and needs of the children, she could assume a responsible position in their lives, as the evidence credited by the court supported its conclusion that Mother failed to comply with the specific steps. 

She failed to sign releases in a timely manner to allow DCF to communicate with service providers, which hampered its ability to procure rehabilitative services for her, and, although she engaged in some services, she was unsuccessfully discharged due to her failure to attend telehealth appointments; she failed to attend an intake appointment for counseling services; and she made little progress during the weekly supervised visitation sessions by failing to engage with her children.  Moreover, Mother conceded that, at no time since the children’s births, had she ever served as their caregiver, and, due to her cognitive limitations and mental health challenges, was largely unable to care for herself and could not meet the needs of her children.

c. Mother could not prevail on her claim that the trial court erroneously found that TPR was in the best interests of the children.  The children were thriving in their foster placement and, contrary to Mother’s assertion, the trial court did acknowledge the bond that she shared with her children.  Moreover, the trial court found that Mother did not have the skills to care for the children and would not be able to assume a responsible role in their lives in a reasonable time period, which was supported by the expert testimony of a court-appointed psychologist and DCF case workers, as well as a written report.  Furthermore, Mother did not aver that she was capable of caring for her children, rather, she requested a transfer of legal guardianship to the children’s grandmother, and the record contained sufficient evidence to provide a proper basis for the court to reject her claim that the children’s best interests would be served by transferring guardianship to the grandmother, as the conditions that gave rise to DCF’s intervention and the children’s subsequent removal occurred while the mother was in Puerto Rico and they were in the grandmother’s care, the record indicated that Mother had a restraining order against the grandmother, and Mother indicated that the grandmother controlled her life.

2. In the second appeal, this Court held that the grandmother could not prevail on her claims that: the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to terminate Mother’s parental rights due to its failure to join her as a necessary party; that the court applied an incorrect legal standard in adjudicating her motion to transfer guardianship; and that the court violated her right to equal protection.

a. The grandmother’s claim that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the TPR proceedings because she was a necessary party that was excluded from the action was contrary to established precedent.  Even if the Court here construed the grandmother’s claim as one challenging the propriety of the trial court’s decision to preclude her from participating as a party in the TPR trial, she would not have prevailed, as the grandmother’s counsel at the TPR trial confirmed that, although the grandmother had been granted intervenor status in the prior neglect proceedings, she had not sought to intervene in the TPR proceedings and was therefore not a party to them.  Moreover, because TPR proceedings concern only the rights of the parent, the grandmother’s claim that the court improperly precluded her in light of her status as the plenary guardian of Mother, and was the only party appropriate to speak on Mother’s behalf, was unavailing, as the trial court appointed a GAL in place of the grandmother to assist Mother in making informed decisions because of conflicts that arose between the grandmother and Mother; the grandmother did not allege that the court-appointed GAL could not fulfill her role.  Furthermore, the record indicated that the grandmother maintained that Mother was not capable of serving as a parent and was unable to meet the needs of the children, which undermined the grandmother’s claim that she was the proper party to advocate on Mother’s behalf at the TPR trial.

b. The trial court applied the proper legal standard when it adjudicated the grandmother’s motion to transfer guardianship.  The grandmother could not prevail on her claim that she was entitled to a presumption that she was a suitable and worthy guardian, and that a transfer of guardianship to her was in the best interests of the children, as neither the applicable statute (§ 46b-129) nor the relevant rule of practice (§ 34a12A) provided a presumption of fitness for a parent or former guardian.  Rather, the rebuttable presumption applied to a relative of a child who either was licensed as a foster parent for the child, or was the court-ordered temporary custodian of the child at the time of the revocation or termination, and neither condition applied to the grandmother at the time of the revocation or termination.  Here, the children were committed to DCF and thus, as a matter of law, they were in the custody and guardianship of DCF, and, accordingly, the grandmother was not entitled to the rebuttable presumption set forth in either § 46b-129 or Practice Book § 34a-12A.

c. The grandmother’s claim that the trial court violated her right to equal protection under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. § 2000d), by discriminating against her as a person of Puerto Rican descent with limited English language proficiency was without merit, as nothing in the record or in the court’s memorandum of decision evinced a discriminatory intent.  The court had provided the grandmother with a Spanish-speaking interpreter since the first hearing following the removal of the children; advised her of all her rights through an interpreter, to which she responded affirmatively; was provided an interpreter at all subsequent proceedings; and the grandmother affirmed through the interpreter that she had reviewed and understood the specific steps issued to her.  Moreover, all DCF case workers assigned to the case, as well as the court-ordered psychologist, spoke in Spanish to the grandmother and provided her with written materials in Spanish, and she had been appointed legal counsel, who represented her at every court hearing until she was no longer a party to the juvenile proceedings.