February 11, 2021

In re November H. – AC44120 (January 2021)[1]

Termination of Parental Rights, Parent-Child Relationship, Interference Exception

TAKEAWAY: Findings that a child has continuing and positive feelings toward a parent is not per se inconsistent with a finding that no normal, healthy, meaningful parent-child relationship exists; both findings can be true.

Father appealed the trial court’s termination of his parental rights with respect to his minor child, N. Father has been incarcerated for the entirety of N’s life, and N was unaware that he was her father until she was approximately 7 years old and in DCF care. Among other issues, Father claimed that the trial court made internally inconsistent statements regarding his parent-child relationship with N, and that the court improperly relied on its finding that additional time was necessary for him to develop a normal and healthy parent-child relationship with N, when DCF and Mother interfered with his ability to develop the relationship.

The Appeals Court held that Father could not prevail on his claim that the trial court’s determination that DCF failed to sustain its burden to demonstrate a lack of parent-child relationship was internally inconsistent with its findings that he did not have a meaningful parent-child relationship. Although there was evidence that N’s feelings toward her father were continuing and positive, this did not preclude the court’s conclusion that they did not share a normal and healthy or meaningful relationship, where Mother had prevented Father from maintaining a meaningful relationship with N, and his continued incarceration and N’s fear of visiting prison formed a barrier to the development of a normal and healthy bond, and the time it would take to form such a bond was unclear.

The Court here also held that the trial correct correctly determined that there was clear and convincing evidence in the record that Father failed to sufficiently rehabilitate within a reasonable period. Although there was evidence that demonstrated that N wanted to visit her father but was afraid to do so in prison, requested photographs of him, wrote a letter to him asking him questions about himself and expressed feelings of missing him during telephone calls, as well as evidence that Father made consistent efforts for visitation, sent N letters, birthday cards and photographs, and had multiple supervised telephone conversations with her during which he provided parental advice, it was undisputed that he had been incarcerated for N’s entire life, during the majority of which she did not know of his existence, was fearful to visit him in prison, and, at the time of trial, had not communicated with him in almost one year, as it was not recommended by N’s clinicians. Moreover, it was undisputed that N had significant psychological and emotional needs created by the trauma she had experienced; as such, the Court here found the trial court did not err in finding that Father would not achieve a sufficient rehabilitative status within a reasonable time to meet those needs.

The Appeals Court also found that Father could not prevail on his claim that DCF’s and Mother’s conduct constituted interference with his ability to establish a normal and healthy parent-child relationship.  At trial, there was undisputed evidence that Mother, not DCF, prevented the initial development of a normal and healthy parent-child relationship between Father and N.  Thus, because the interference exception is applicable only when DCF has engaged in conduct that led to the lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship, the conduct of Mother as a third party could not trigger the interference exception to § 17a-112 (j) (3) (D).

[1] https://jud.ct.gov/external/supapp/Cases/AROap/AP202/202AP75.pdf