July 15, 2019

In re Anaishaly C. – 190 Conn. App. 667 – June 2019
Termination of Parental Rights
Failure to Achieve Requisite Degree of Personal Rehabilitation
Substance Use, Intimate Partner Violence, Housing

Parents appealed the judgment terminating their rights with respect to their children, on the basis that the trial court improperly concluded that (1) they failed to achieve the requisite degree of personal rehabilitation, and (2) termination of their parental rights was in the best interests of the children.

Anaishaly was born in June 2011. When she was 14 months old, father was arrested following a domestic dispute with mother; a no contact protective order was issued by the court.  In October 2014, mother indicated to DCF that she was concerned about father’s ongoing abuse. She signed a safety plan agreeing to have no contact with him, and was brought to a domestic violence shelter. DCF later called mother’s cell phone and father answered. Mother recanted the allegations, and was reluctant to return to the shelter. That same day, DCF assumed temporary custody of Anaishaly, and a neglect petition was filed shortly thereafter.

In January 2015, mother called the police after father broke into her apartment and attacked her. He was ultimately arrested and another no contact order was issued. DCF referred both parents to various rehabilitative services. Khrianalis was born in August 2015; Anaishaly was returned home in May 2016, following parents’ successful engagement with services. In June, DCF was called to the home following allegations of abuse, which both parents denied. Both children ultimately went into foster care, where they have remained since that time.

In July 2016, the court issued amended specific steps, ordering, among other things, to cooperate with counseling and gain insight about how domestic violence affects their children, and to abstain from illegal drugs. In November, mother gave birth to a third daughter, Knitzeyalis, who tested positive for marijuana; she has since remained in DCF custody while living with her sisters in foster care.

In January 2017, parents were discharged from an IPV program, due to poor attendance. In May, DCF filed termination of parental rights petitions, and parents subsequently reengaged in the program and completed it. A discharge summary recommended that father undergo a mental health assessment to deal with underlying trauma issues, which he had not done as of the conclusion of trial.

In October 2017, while the termination of parental rights petitions were pending, parents completed a reunification readiness assessment. While the parents were actively engaged with the children, showed them love and affection, and were capable of meeting the children’s basic needs, reunification was not recommended, as parents continued to be non-compliant with random drug screens. Father also acknowledged that he would continue to smoke marijuana after the children were returned to his care because he did not believe it to be harmful. During a meeting where the specialist explained her assessment, father became upset and made threats to the DCF worker.

Following the assessment, DCF asked both respondents to submit to hair follicle testing. As of trial, father had been scheduled for four appointments and had yet to be tested. Mother tested negative, but admitted to continued marijuana use.  Parents had also failed to secure adequate housing.

Following a termination trial in early 2018, the court terminated parental rights, finding that the children had come into DCF custody based on respondents’ issues with marijuana use, domestic violence, and transience, and that DCF had offered and provided multiple reunification services on an ongoing basis, which constituted reasonable and timely efforts to reunify the family. Though parents had occasionally made progress, they were noncompliant with others, and the court ultimately ruled that they had not made the required level of progress in their rehabilitation.

Parents appealed on the basis that there was insufficient evidence for the court to find that they each failed to achieve the requisite degree of personal rehabilitation. They argued that there was no evidence that their marijuana use affected their ability to parent, and that the recent changes in the law around the criminalization of marijuana should be taken into account in child protection law. In response, the Court noted that there was no authority to support the assertion that the legalization of marijuana should be relevant to the law the trial court was required to apply in a child protection case, and that the CT Supreme Court has held the opposite, i.e. that whether or not a substance is legal is irrelevant to whether the respondent has completed the specific steps ordered by the court. (In re Shane M., 318 Conn. 596, 2015).  

The Court also found that there was a vast difference in purpose and application between criminal laws meant to protect the general public, and specific steps tailored to parents whose parenting issues have resulted in the involvement of the juvenile court. Less restrictive laws around marijuana use for the general public are irrelevant to the question of whether the parents completed the specific steps assigned to them by the court. The Court noted that the proper measure of their compliance was their ability to provide negative drug testing results over a sustained period of time, which they failed to do. Given that parents knew that failure to submit to drug testing would impede reunification, and nevertheless chose not to comply, the Court found no fault with the trial court weighing this factor when considering whether parents were willing and able to reunify with their children.

Parents next argued that there was insufficient evidence for the court to find that they’d failed to rehabilitate on the basis of their domestic violence issues, given that there had been no incidents of intimate partner violence since 2016, and they had each completed domestic violence programs. The Court said that based on the trial court’s specific concern about the link between father’s history of domestic violence and his use of alcohol and controlled substances, and particularly the similarity between his threats to the mother in January 2015 and his threats to the social worker in November 2017, the trial court was justified in finding that father had not been able to control his anger.

Parents also argued that their housing situation did not support the court’s conclusion that they had failed to rehabilitate. The Court responded that there was evidence to support the trial court’s conclusion that their housing situation was not suitable or permissible. The Court also reiterated that the trial court had looked at the cumulative effect of the evidence, and not just any one of these factors (substance abuse, domestic violence, and lack of suitable housing) alone.

Finally, parents argued that the trial court had improperly determined that the termination of their parental rights was in the best interests of the children, given that the court had found that they’d made strong progress in their rehabilitation and had a strong bond with the children. The trial court had determined that while the parents and children had ‘strong feelings’ for each other, the court had to weigh that evidence against the length of time that the children had been in foster care, and each parent’s lack of progress toward reunification. Given each parent’s inability to sufficiently recognize and remedy their issues, it was impossible to predict when the children could be safely returned, and the children were doing well in their current care, with their current caretaker having committed to adopting them. The court had concluded that despite the strong bond, it would be detrimental to the children’s well-being to delay permanency any longer, as the parents had been given sufficient help and opportunities to achieve reunification. Though parents argued that the positive facts found by the trial court should have outweighed the negative, the Appeals Court declined to second-guess the trial court’s conclusion based on the evidence, and noted that even when a strong bond exists between parent and child, it may still be in the child’s best interest to terminate parental rights.

The Court concluded that the trial court’s determination that termination of parental rights was in the best interests of the children was not clearly erroneous, and the judgment was therefore affirmed.