In re Leah S.

Connecticut Supreme Court

December 18, 2007

Supreme Court Reversal

The Supreme Court, reversing the judgment of the Appellate Court, held that the Department of Children and Families could not be held in contempt for violating the court-ordered Specific Steps which mandated that the Department “ensure the [child’s] wellbeing” and “provide appropriate services.” The Court determined, ironically, that the Specific Steps were too vague to support a finding of contempt.

In April 2003, the Department took custody of Leah S. via an order of Temporary Custody, alleging that, despite Leah’s extensive mental health history, her parents failed to cooperate with physicians’ and the Department’s recommendations for treatment. At the time of Leah’s removal from her parents’ home, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had a long history of destructive behavior, violence toward animals, and previous psychiatric hospitalizations for suicidal ideation. Accordingly, when Leah was taken into DCF custody, the court issued Specific Steps requiring the Department to ensure Leah’s wellbeing and provide appropriate case management and therapeutic services.

However, despite the severity of Leah’s psychiatric needs and despite clinical recommendations for therapeutic placement in a specially licensed foster home or residential facility, Leah languished in a series of inappropriate, non-therapeutic foster placements. By September, 2003, she was living in her fourth foster placement and she still had yet to receive psychiatric treatment. .

In October, 2003, Leah was adjudicated neglected, and the court supplemented the Specific Steps by ordering the Department to facilitate counseling between Leah and her sibling. Meanwhile, records indicated that Leah continued to deteriorate in her foster placement. She suffered from possible overmedication, and she was increasingly estranged from her biological family.

In November 2003, Leah’s mother filed a contempt motion against the Department, alleging that the Department’s failure to provide Leah appropriate services was harming her and delaying the family’s reunification. The Superior Court found the Department in contempt of the court-ordered Specific Steps. The court ordered the Department to pay $500 to Leah’s mother to assist with her attorney’s fees.

On appeal, the Department contended that the relevant orders contained in the Specific Steps were too “ambiguous” to serve as the basis for a contempt finding. The Department looked to past case law holding that in order to be found in contempt of a court order, the contemnor must have had adequate notice of the court’s expectations. The Appellate Court rejected this argument, holding that the Specific Steps provided “ample direction” to the Department regarding its obligation to provide appropriate care for Leah. The Appellate Court also determined that, to the extent the Department did not understand its obligations, it was the Department’s responsibility to “seek clarification” of the court orders.

The Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Court’s judgment, holding that the orders were indeed too ambiguous to support a finding of contempt. The Court also took the opportunity to clarify the standard of review for contempt decisions. The threshold question is whether the underlying court order is sufficient clear to support a contempt finding. Secondly, the reviewing court must determine whether the trial court abused its discretion in issuing, or refusing to issue, a contempt judgment.

The Court held that in this case the first requirement was not satisfied. The underlying order must require the person to do or refrain from doing an act or series of acts using “specific and definite language”. Here, the “imprecise wording” of the Specific Steps afforded the Department great discretion regarding the services it provided. Nothing in the Steps clarified or defined the meaning of “necessary measures” or “appropriate services.” The Steps did not specify whether Leah should have been placed in a therapeutic foster home or residential treatment facility. The Court also held that it was not, as the Appellate Court held, the Department’s obligation to “clarify” the Steps. Previous case law held that where a party was bound by a court order and circumstances relative to the court order changed, the party was not permitted to resort to “self help” and independently determine whether its obligations continued. Rather, the party must return to the court to clarify or modify the order. Here, the Department did not impermissibly resort to “self help” measures. The Specific Steps were ambiguous from the outset. Accordingly, there was no basis for a contempt finding.

Although the Court reversed the contempt finding, it did confirm that trial courts enjoy broad authority to issue Specific Steps and augment those Steps with supplemental orders to facilitate family wellbeing and reunification. The Court stated that such “concomitant reunification efforts on the part of the parents and the department help to preserve the integrity of the family and are based on the well settled notion that the right of a parent to raise his or her children is recognized as basic constitutional right.” The Court also noted that both the mother and the Department agreed that the Specific Steps constitute court orders and that failure to comply with such an order may result in a contempt finding.

Finally, the Court concluded that though it was compelled to reverse the Appellate Court judgment, it did not condone the Department’s treatment of Leah S or the fact that it took a contempt motion to get the Department to provide appropriate and timely services.

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