In re Jorden R.

Connecticut Appellate Court

April 15, 2008


In this unusual case, the Appellate Court reversed a termination of parental rights decision on the grounds that the trial court’s determination that the mother was unable or unwilling to benefit from reunification services was clearly erroneous.

This case began after infant Jorden suffered severe and inexplicable injuries while in the care of his parents. DCF moved to terminate parental rights shortly after the child’s initial removal on the ground that the child was harmed as a result of the parents’ acts of “commission or omission.” DCF successfully alleged that the parents were unable to benefit from services, thus relieving the department of its statutory obligation to provide rehabilitation and reunification services. On appeal the respondent mother challenged both findings.

The Appellate Court affirmed the “omission/commission” ground for termination, reasoning that because the child suffered injuries in the care of his parents for which no adequate explanation was offered, there was sufficient evidence to support the trial court’s conclusion.

However, the Appellate Court found that the trial court erroneously found that the mother was unable or unwilling to benefit from reunification services. At trial, DCF contended that it did not have to provide reunification services given the nature and severity of the child’s injuries. However, the trial court did not address whether the Department was statutorily obligated to provide reunification services. Instead, the court analyzed whether or not the respondent mother had cooperated and benefited from services and whether she could reasonably put herself in a position to be an appropriate parent. The appellate court then reviewed the trial court’s findings in that regard.

The appellate court noted that the trial court found the respondent “facially complied” with the specific steps ordered for her. Additionally, although there was evidence that the mother briefly renewed her relationship with the physically abusive father, the record also demonstrated that the mother quickly terminated that relationship, continued with appropriate counseling and sought a restraining order against the father. Interestingly, the trial court also accepted testimony that the mother sought out additional counseling after the termination petition had been filed.

The appellate court determined that the trial court’s factual finding that the mother could not or would not benefit from these services was clearly erroneous given ample evidence in the record of the mother’s efforts and progress with services and visitation. The appellate court also pointedly noted the trial court’s emphasis on the mother’s youth and immaturity. The appellate court observed that “[t]his circumstance is not as uncommon as one might wish it were in today’s society.” The appellate court held that the mother’s youth and immaturity were dynamic characteristics that would continue to improve over time. The court concluded that “[it may well be the fact that the department might be able to choose more effective parents than those to whom many children have been born.

…[However, as the] Supreme Court has noted, ‘[a] parent cannot be displaced [simply] because someone else could do a better job of raising the child . . . .”. The appellate court held that absent any suggestion the respondent caused the child’s injuries, she was entitled to reasonable reunification efforts. It is unclear whether the appellate court was ruling that the trial court’s finding in this regard was erroneous because the mother had made some progress towards services or because she was not the perpetrator of the child’s injuries and therefore DCF was not entitled to a finding that reunification efforts were not required.

On a separate issue, the appellate court, citing in re David W., 254 Conn. 676 (2000), held it was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to preclude testimony from the respondent’s independent expert because the expert had viewed a report prepared by the court appointed evaluator who relied on a confidential interview with the father. The appellate court held that the trial court could have used an alternate remedy for the violation of the father’s privacy rights. Instead, the trial court excluded relevant and highly important information. Therefore, the decision to preclude the testimony and report of the independent evaluator constituted harmful error.

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