May 1, 2022

In Re Delilah G. (AC 45058)

TPR; no ongoing parent-child relationship; interference exception

August 2022

Mother appealed the trial court’s decision terminating her parental rights to her daughter, D.

Father and Mother had married while he was in the Navy in California. After his deployment to the east coast, they divorced in 2014, and Mother was granted physical custody of D; Father was granted visitation rights.  After a separate custody trial in Washington D.C., the court granted Father physical custody of D and visitation rights to Mother. In 2015, after Father married S, a court in Maryland modified the custody and visitation order, permitting Father to move to Connecticut. Mother’s last visit with D occurred in 2017, before Father moved to Connecticut and Mother moved back to California. Twice while Father, S and D lived in Connecticut, the Navy deployed him for periods of approximately 6 months, which Mother claimed interfered with her ability to establish a relationship with D.  In 2018, D began behavioral health treatment with L, an advanced practice registered nurse.  In March 2018, the Superior Court held a hearing on a motion that Father had filed to modify the custody and visitation order.  After hearing, which Mother did not attend, the court ordered that Father would maintain sole legal and physical custody of D, and that Mother would be permitted to visit D at Father’s discretion upon proof of substance abuse counseling, completion of a parenting course and reunification therapy.  Father then filed a petition to terminate Mother’s rights with respect to D on, inter alia, the statutory (§ 45a-717 (g) (2) (C)) ground that she had no ongoing parent-child relationship with D.  Prior to trial, DCF completed a social study in which it recommended TPR.

The trial court, in terminating Mother’s parental rights, found that D, who was 9 years old at the time of the TPR hearing, did not have any present positive memories of Mother, whom she referred to at times as her ‘‘other mother,’’ and that D’s memories of Mother did not involve pleasant things.  The trial court further concluded that the interference exception to the ongoing parent-child relationship ground for TPR was inapplicable, and that Mother had made minimal efforts to maintain a relationship with D. On appeal, Mother claimed, inter alia, that the trial court, in concluding that she had no ongoing parent-child relationship with D, failed to consider Father’s interference with the development of that relationship and D’s positive feelings toward her.

The Court here held that Mother could not prevail on her claim.  The cumulative evidence was sufficient to justify the trial court’s determinations that D had no present, positive memories of Mother and, thus, that there was no ongoing parent-child relationship between them.  Moreover, contrary to Mother’s assertion that D had many present, positive memories of her, the evidence could not be construed as evidence of present memories or feelings that were positive in nature.

The Court here also held that the trial court properly determined that Mother failed to establish that the actions of Father rendered inevitable her lack of a relationship with D.  Contrary to Mother’s contention, the 2018 court order did not bar her from visiting with D but rather, permitted visitation at Father’s discretion upon proof that she had completed some services.  The court order did not preclude Mother from speaking with D by phone or mailing her letters or gifts.  Mother produced no credible evidence that she had engaged in the services prescribed in the court’s order, or that she sought to modify the court order before the filing of the TPR petition.  Father’s insistence that she abide by the court’s orders, his refusal to let her visit D when she did not adhere to the court-ordered visitation schedule, and his deployments, which the court considered, did not constitute interference with her relationship with D.  Furthermore, Mother presented no evidence regarding the quality and nature of her relationship with D before Father’s alleged interference, and she made minimal effort to maintain a relationship with D, as she had custody of her for the first 3 years of her life, court-ordered visitation in the years since the original judgment transferred custody to Father, and the opportunity to maintain contact and a relationship with D through phone calls, letters, and gifts.

Lastly, the Court here held that the evidence was sufficient to support the trial court’s conclusion that allowing further time for the reestablishment of a parent-child relationship between D and Mother would be detrimental to D’s best interests.  The court did not improperly rely on L’s statement, as Mother claimed, that D could experience emotional distress if she had contact with Mother; rather, the court was entitled to give great weight to the statements of such professionals, and evidence such as DCF’s social study.  The court had already had found that D had no relationship with Mother.  Moreover, D had negative memories of or feelings toward Mother, who presented no evidence that she ever engaged in the services prescribed in the court’s 2018 visitation order or sought to modify that order.  Instead, evidence showed that Mother had hit D and pushed Father down stairs, that D had lived with Father and S since they married, and that Father and S, whom D referred to as her mother, were meeting her needs.