March 22, 2023

In re Nevaeh G.-M. (AC 45686)

March 2023

Failure to Rehabilitate, Domestic Violence, Mental Health

Mother appealed the termination of her parental rights with respect to her 3 children; both fathers consented to the termination of their respective rights.

Mother’s history of DCF involvement began in 2012, following an incident of IPV between Mother and one of the fathers that threatened their child’s well-being. A safety plan requiring Mother to prioritize that child’s safety was put into place. In 2016, following an altercation between Mother and that father that occurred in the presence of their children, Mother ended that relationship and began a relationship with the subsequent father. That same year, Mother and that father had an altercation in her home while her children were present. A safety plan was put into place and a restraining order was issued.  In 2017, the children were adjudicated neglected as a result of violations of the safety plan and restraining order, but were permitted to remain in Mother’s custody with protective supervision. DCF closed their case file after Mother completed the services that were required of her and convinced DCF that she had ended her relationship with the subsequent father. After another child was born, it became clear that Mother was violating the safety plan then in effect, and, in 2019, all 3 children were adjudicated neglected. They were removed from Mother and committed to DCF.  After she completed additional domestic violence counseling and programs, they were returned to her under an order of protective supervision, and DCF ultimately closed its case.  In 2020, hostilities between the fathers increased, resulting in multiple incidents that required police intervention in front of the children.  DCF removed the children from Mother’s care. Approximately one year later, DCF filed petitions to terminate all parental rights. The trial court conducted a consolidated trial on the outstanding neglect petitions and the TPR petitions. At its conclusion, the court adjudicated the children neglected, rendered judgments terminating parental rights, and denied a motion filed by Mother seeking post-termination visitation rights.   On Mother’s appeal, this Court held:

  1. Mother could not prevail on her claim that the evidence was insufficient to support the TPRs on the ground of failure to rehabilitate (§ 17a112 (j) (3) (B) (i)).
  2. Mother’s claims that the trial court improperly determined that TPR was in the best interests of the children, improperly approved the permanency plan, and improperly denied her request for post-termination visitation were inadequately briefed and deemed abandoned, as she failed to provide any analysis in support of such claims.
  3. The cumulative evidence was sufficient to justify the court’s conclusions that Mother had failed to benefit from the extensive services provided to her by DCF and that she had not adequately rehabilitated to the point that she could assume a responsible parenting role for her children, either presently or at some reasonable future date. Instead, overwhelming evidence established that Mother was either incapable of complying with the safety plans and protective orders, or chose to ignore them. Additionally, she repeatedly misled DCF and failed to take reasonable steps to minimize the risk of her children being exposed to additional acts of IPV.  Furthermore, although Mother had the ability and the motivation to complete the programs required by DCF, once the services ended, she reverted back to the behaviors that led to DCF involvement, and ignored DCF’s repeated warnings and recommendations.  Additionally, although the court was not legally required to consider any post-adjudicatory date evidence, Mother’s assertion that it failed to do so was contradicted by the record.
  4. Mother’s assertion that the court relied on clearly erroneous factual findings in determining that she had failed to rehabilitate was unavailing because the court’s conclusions and relevant findings of fact rested on specific evidence. When examining Mother’s testimony as a whole, the Appeals Court could not conclude that the trial court’s finding that Mother testified that she had done ‘‘nothing wrong’’ was clearly erroneous, because, although those exact words were not in the transcript of her testimony, it could reasonably be inferred from her testimony that she failed to understand that she placed her children in a situation that she should have anticipated could result in exposing them to additional violence. Moreover, contrary to Mother’s claims, there was an abundance of evidence in the record relating to her mental health issues, in addition to the opinion of the court-appointed psychological evaluator.  Regardless, the court’s decision to terminate her parental rights was not made on the basis of her mental health; the existence of evidence supporting findings contrary to the trial court’s determinations did not render the court’s findings erroneous.
  5. Mother’s claims regarding the trial court’s orders with respect to pretrial discovery and the admission of certain evidence failed because, even if established, such errors were harmless. The alleged errors had little bearing on the crux of the trial court’s analysis, as there was nothing in its decision regarding Mother’s failure to rehabilitate that would lead the Appeals Court to conclude that the decision would have been different in the absence of the admission of the testimony of the court-appointed psychological evaluator. Mother did not demonstrate that her mental health evaluation or any particular diagnosis played a material role in the trial court’s TPR decision.