August 5, 2023
DCF appealed the judgment denying a petition to terminate Father’s parental rights, and granting Father’s motion to transfer legal guardianship from DCF to paternal grandmother. The child had been residing with the same foster family since her birth almost three years earlier. Grandmother, who lived in New York, had never been the child’s foster parent or temporary custodian. Following a consolidated trial on the TPR petition and the motion to transfer guardianship, the trial court concluded that DCF had proven by clear and convincing evidence that statutory grounds existed to terminate Father’s parental rights. In the dispositional phase of the termination trial, the court made written findings with respect to each of the seven factors set forth in the applicable statute, but did not make any findings concerning the child’s best interests before it addressed the motion to transfer guardianship. On DCF’s motion to reargue, the trial court issued a corrected memorandum of decision in which it detailed the results of an investigation that had been conducted by a New York children’s agency to assess grandmother as a possible placement resource. The court found that the evidence was clear and convincing that she was a suitable and worthy person to be awarded permanent legal guardianship, and that guardianship vested in her was in the child’s best interests. The Court here held:
1. The trial court applied an incorrect legal standard in granting Father’s motion to transfer guardianship from DCF to grandmother. Because she was not the child’s foster parent or temporary custodian, pursuant to Practice Book § 35a-12A (d) governing motions to transfer guardianship, Father, as the moving party, had the burden to demonstrate both that she was a suitable and worthy person to become the child’s guardian, and that transferring guardianship to her was in the child’s best interests. A review of the court’s memorandum of decision in its entirety revealed that the trial court did not hold Father to his burden of proof, the decision having been devoid of a correct statement of the law, let alone a conclusion that he had satisfied his burden of proof. Moreover, the trial court’s statement that it had not been shown that placement with the grandmother would be detrimental to the child, in the absence of a countervailing analysis, led the Court here to conclude that the trial court improperly placed the burden of proof on DCF and the child, both of whom opposed Father’s motion, to demonstrate that transferring guardianship would be detrimental to the child. Accordingly, because the trial court applied an incorrect legal standard, the appropriate remedy was to reverse the judgment granting the motion to transfer guardianship and remand the case for a new hearing.
2. The trial court, having found that multiple grounds existed for terminating Father’s parental rights, erred in denying the TPR petition without considering whether that ruling was in the child’s best interests. Although the trial court, in the dispositional portion of its decision, made several subordinate findings concerning Father, all of which strongly suggested that the court would likely conclude that TPR was in the child’s best interests, the court did not thereafter, in the best interests portion of its decision, set forth a finding concerning the dispositive issue of whether TPR was in the child’s best interests. Instead, it concluded that terminating Mother’s parental rights was in the child’s best interests, but adoption was not appropriate as the grandmother was a suitable and worthy person, and that legal guardianship vested in her was in the child’s best interests. Moreover, although the court appeared to have denied the TPR petition as to Father solely because it concluded that the grandmother should become the child’s legal guardian, there was no basis in law for the court to have conflated those issues. Accordingly, the Court here reversed the judgment of the trial court denying the TPR petition with respect to Father and remanded the case to the trial court for a new dispositional hearing, at which its sole focus was to be on whether it was in the child’s best interests to terminate Father’s parental rights.