February 15, 2019
In re Jacob W et al.
SC 20063 – February 15, 2019
Termination of Parental Rights
No Ongoing Parent-Child Relationship
Respondent father appealed a judgment of the Appellate Court, which had reversed the trial court’s denial of grandmother’s petitions to terminate his parental rights with respect to his 3 children, Jacob, N, and C.
Father and mother had been arrested when the children were 8, 6, and 4, respectively. Father was charged with multiple counts of sexual assault on a minor; the minor was mother’s younger sister, who was close in age to his children. He was later convicted and sentenced to a total of 29 years of incarceration, followed by 16 years of parole. Mother was charged with conspiracy on the same counts.
A criminal protective order was put in place, preventing father from contacting the child in any manner, as well as any of her immediate family, but not his children. However, because his children lived with the child, and they shared guardians (grandparents), the protective order had the practical effect of prohibiting father from contacting the home. There was never a request for modification of that protective order.
Grandmother filed the petitions to terminate the parental rights of both parents approximately one year after becoming their guardian in Probate Court, ultimately alleging abandonment and lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship. Mother consented and surrendered her rights. Following a trial as to father, however, the court denied the petition, concluding that grandmother did not meet her burden in proving that he had abandoned the children by clear and convincing evidence. It relied on his extensive involvement with the children prior to being incarcerated, as well as his efforts to maintain contact with them during his incarceration.
The court also denied grandmother’s claim that there was no ongoing parent-child relationship pursuant to 45a-717(g)(2)(C), which required a two-part inquiry: first, that there be no ongoing parent-child relationship by clear and convincing evidence, i.e. that the child has no present memories or feelings for the parent that are positive in nature; and second, if there is no ongoing relationship, then allowing the parent additional time to reestablish the relationship would be detrimental to the best interests of the children.
The trial court found that given that the grandparents had “interfered” with father’s efforts to maintain contact, and that he had made the efforts, grandmother had not proven a lack of ongoing relationship by clear and convincing evidence. It also found no evidence supporting the claim that additional time to reestablish a relationship would be detrimental to the children.
Grandmother appealed the trial court’s judgments. The Appellate Court overturned, concluding that the trial court had applied an incorrect legal test, in holding that where grandmother had interfered & engaged in conduct that led to father’s lack of an ongoing relationship, regardless of her intention, she could not then be able to rely on that lack of relationship to terminate his rights.
The Supreme Court found that the Appellate Court properly reversed the trial court’s judgments on the ground that the trial court applied an incorrect test in determining that grandmother had failed to prove the lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship pursuant to 45a-717(g)(2)(C). The Supreme Court clarified that, when a parent/guardian seeks to terminate the parental rights of a noncustodial parent, and that parent/guardian has engaged in conduct that has led to the lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship, that parent/guardian cannot rely on the lack of such relationship to terminate the noncustodial parent’s rights; instead, except in the case of infants, the existence of an ongoing parent-child relationship is determined by looking at the present feelings and memories of a child towards that parent, rather than by that parent’s conduct in maintaining the relationship.
The Court here affirmed the Appellate Court’s findings that the trial court applied the incorrect legal test to deny the petitions to terminate. Nowhere in the trial court’s findings did it suggest that the grandparents engaged in conduct that led to the lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship – only that they failed to provide father updates about the children, without explanation as to how those updates would have affected the children’s feelings towards him. Additionally, the Court found it “puzzling” that the trial court failed to address the evidence that the children had witnessed their father abusing their mother, as part of the reason for the children’s disdain towards him. The Appellate Court found that the trial court also did not assess the children’s feelings when determining the ongoing relationship; rather, it improperly considered father’s conduct alone.
Additionally, in affirming the Appellate Court’s findings, the Court here found clearly erroneous the trial court’s findings that grandmother failed to present any evidence that allowing father additional time to reestablish the relationship would be detrimental to the children’s best interests, the second prong of 45a-717(g)(2)(C). Rather, it made a conclusory finding not based on the evidence presented, including that the two older children had very negative feelings towards father, and the youngest had no memory of him. The Court also found that that trial court failed to take into account the positions of DCF, the GAL, and the children’s attorney, all of whom recommended the termination of father’s rights.
- D’Auria issued a lengthy dissent, to which Js. McDonald & Ecker joined, recommending a reversal of the Appellate Court’s decision and a remand with direction to affirm the trial court’s denial of the petition to terminate father’s rights. The dissent stems from the view that the majority misread and too strictly scrutinized the full meaning of the trial court’s opinion in regards to a “lack of evidence” that would support a claim that additional time to reestablish a relationship would be detrimental, and instead should have read it as the court found no direct or persuasive evidence of such. In doing so, the dissent believes the majority mistakenly substituted its own judgment for the trial court’s judgment on an issue of fact, i.e. that the trial court might not have been persuaded by evidence that the majority believes it should have been persuaded by.