June 18, 2019

In re Natalia M. – 190 Conn. App. 583 – June 2019

Termination of Parental Rights
Unwilling/Unable to Benefit from Reunification Efforts

Respondent father appeals from the judgment of the trial court terminating his parental rights with respect to his daughter, Natalia M., pursuant to General Statutes 17a-112(j)(3)(B)(i).

Natalia was born in November 2016. In December 2016, the police were dispatched to the motel where Natalia and her mother were staying. Father was arrested and charged with various crimes. DCF took temporary custody of Natalia and filed a neglect petition; the court subsequently issued an order of temporary custody. Father was given specific steps pursuant to the court order, including domestic violence and substance abuse treatment. He failed to comply with these steps, while also questioning whether he was the father of the child. During the period from December 2016 to April 2017 (when his paternity was confirmed), he had no contact with Natalia. Father continued to not have contact with her after learning he was the father, and ignored letters from DCF offering him visitation.

In May 2017, the court adjudicated Natalia as neglected, and committed her to  DCF custody. The court ordered final specific steps, with which father failed to comply. After he was arrested again in August 2017, he expressed an interest in visiting with Natalia. That October, a permanency plan which proposed termination of both parents’ rights was approved, despite father’s objections. DCF subsequently met with him to discuss visitation and Natalia’s medical needs. Because she was in poor health, both DCF and father agreed that visitation to the prison should not occur until her health improved.

In December 2017, DCF filed a termination petition for both parents. In April 2018, father underwent a psychological evaluation, including an interactive session with Natalia. The psychologist determined that he had little understanding of her needs or the impact of his actions on her. From May to November 2018, DCF took Natalia to the prison for visits once or twice a month, depending on her health.

In November 2018, the court held a hearing on the petition for termination of parental rights. Judgment terminating such rights was issued by the court in December. The court found, pursuant to 17a-112(j)(1), that (1) DCF had made reasonable efforts at reunification and (2) father was unable or unwilling to benefit from those efforts. He appealed on the ground that the court erred in finding that DCF had made reasonable efforts at reunification, arguing that they violated his right to due process by failing to provide him with adequate visitation with Natalia prior to the April 2018 psychological evaluation, so that he had not had the benefit of prior visitation with the child before that evaluation. In response, DCF argued that because father only challenged one of the two separate bases for the court’s determination, that the requirements of 17a-112(j)(1) were satisfied, and that his appeal should be dismissed as moot. The court agreed, noting that 17a-112 (j)(1) “requires a trial court to find by clear and convincing evidence that the department made reasonable efforts to reunify a parent and child unless it finds instead that the parent is unable or unwilling to benefit from such efforts.” Because respondent had only challenged the determination from the trial court that DCF had made reasonable efforts at reunification, and not the determination that he himself was unwilling or unable to benefit from those efforts, his appeal was moot, and was therefore dismissed by the court.