October 21, 2023

AC 46336

Mother appealed the termination of her parental rights of her three of her children. She did not appear in court for the TPR trial. She was represented by counsel, who indicated that she was unable to attend because she was at a hospital with two of her other children who were ill. Her counsel requested to continue her portion of the trial. The trial court denied the request, noting that Mother had missed multiple pretrial hearings and conferences for purported reasons of illness. The trial proceeded, and her counsel cross-examined DCF’s witnesses, and presented a closing argument. The court found by clear and convincing evidence that, inter alia, DCF had made reasonable efforts to reunify and that TPR was in the children’s best interests. The Court here held:

  1. Mother’s claim that the trial court violated her due process rights when it denied her request for a continuance failed because she did not show that a constitutional violation existed. Because her counsel did not frame the request for a continuance as a matter of due process, Mother’s claim was an unpreserved constitutional claim that this Court reviewed under the three-prong test set forth in State v. Golding (213 Conn. 233). Assuming that Mother’s claim was reviewable under the first two prongs of Golding, in that the record was adequate and the claim was of constitutional magnitude, it did not satisfy the requirement of the third prong of Golding because Mother failed to establish that the denial of her motion for a continuance rendered the TPR proceeding fundamentally unfair under the balancing test set forth in Mathews v. Eldridge (424 U.S. 319).  Although she had an important, constitutionally protected interest in preserving her parental rights, the granting of the continuance to provide Mother with another opportunity to be present and to testify would not have meaningfully reduced the risk of an erroneous determination regarding the TPR: her counsel was present throughout the hearing and adequately represented her interests in her absence, and Mother failed to specify what additional evidence or testimony she would have introduced that would have rebutted DCF’s evidence had the continuance been granted.  Furthermore, delaying the trial would have resulted in economic and administrative burdens on resources and would have undermined the state’s interest in protecting the welfare of children, as DCF had had extensive and prolonged involvement with the children over the course of almost 7 years.
  2. Mother could not prevail on her alternative claim that the trial court abused its discretion in denying her motion for a continuance. The Appeals Court reviewed the record and various factors in reaching its conclusion, including: the age and complexity of the case; the court’s granting of other continuances in the past; the impact of the delay on the litigants, witnesses, opposing counsel and the court; the failure of Mother’s counsel to specify the length of the requested continuance; and the fact that the request for a continuance was made on the morning of trial, for which all other parties, counsel, and witnesses had appeared. Further, the trial court reasonably could have determined that Mother’s unsubstantiated excuse for her absence was inadequate, as the court had previously informed her that she would not be excused from any further court appearances without written documentation that she was prevented from attending due to a medical issue.