March 1, 2020

In re Geoffrey G.
196 Conn. App. 316
March 2020

Respondent mother appealed the trial court’s termination of parental rights of her son, Geoffrey, based on her inability to rehabilitate to assume a responsible position in the child’s life. On appeal, she claimed that the court improperly failed to order, sua sponte, an evaluation of her competency to assist her counsel at trial, in violation of her due process rights under the fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Mother had a long history of mental health issues and inconsistency with obtaining treatment. Geoffrey was born in January 2016; he and mother lived with Geoffrey’s maternal grandparents. In May 2016, following a physical altercation with maternal grandmother, mother was arrested and DCF was granted temporary custody of Geoffrey. In August, he was adjudicated neglected and returned to mother’s custody, with one year of protective supervision ordered.  In July 2017, mother went to Backus Hospital seeking medication, appeared to be under the influence, and had to be hospitalized. DCF again gained temporary custody; in August, mother agreed to have Geoffrey committed to DCF, where he has been committed ever since. In May 2018, DCF filed to terminate parental rights, alleging that mother had failed to achieve the necessary degree of personal rehabilitation; the petition was granted in May 2019.

On appeal, mother claimed the court had violated her due process rights by failing to order, sua sponte, an evaluation of her competency to assist her counsel at trial. The Appellate Court noted that it gives deference to the trial court in instances where there has been an in-court evaluation, because of the opportunity to decide competency in-person instead of via the record.  Here, the Court reviewed two instances where the trial court explored mother’s mental awareness and ability to understand the gravity of the case. In the first, the court verified that mother was aware that her personal psychiatrist did not have to testify on confidential patient/client information; mother acknowledged that she was aware, but believed the psychiatrist’s testimony would be beneficial to her defense. In the second instance, the trial court verified that mother was of sound mind to make the decision to testify herself.  She confirmed that she had spoken with her counsel and was making the decision to testify because she needed to speak up for herself.

Here, despite acknowledging that mother had “severe mental health issues, which she is unable or unwilling to treat for a sustained period of time,” the Court held that both of these inquiries were sufficient to establish that the trial court had not violated her due process rights, because it had twice verified, via canvass, that there was no need for a formal evaluation of mother’s competency at trial.  Additionally, the Court found that mother’s testimony, as a whole, also reinforced the trial court’s conclusion that she understood the proceedings and assisted her counsel at trial.  She was an accurate historian of relevant events, services she had engaged in, residences at which she had lived, and her personal finances.  While some of her testimony did arguably reveal paranoid and delusional thinking, the Court did not agree that it was indicative of incompetency, as the remainder of her testimony was largely coherent and historically accurate.  The judgment was affirmed.