June 1, 2020
In re Omar I. et al
197 Conn. App. 499
Denial of Appeal from Termination of Father’s Parental Rights
Respondent father appealed from the judgment of the trial court terminating his parental rights, contending that (1) judicial bias deprived him of a fair trial; (2) the court improperly found that he failed to achieve such a degree of personal rehabilitation as would encourage the belief that, within a reasonable period of time, considering the needs and ages of the children, he could assume a responsible position in the children’s lives; (3) the court improperly found that the termination of his parental rights was in the children’s best interests; (4) the court improperly found that DCF made reasonable efforts to reunify him with his children; (5) DCF was estopped from supporting the petitions brought by the children to terminate his parental rights; and (6) the court improperly denied his motion to revoke the court’s order that committed the children to DCF.
In July 2015, father filed a motion for an emergency ex parte order of temporary custody, seeking to remove his three children from their mother and have them placed with him, based upon allegations of her unstable mental health. Instead, the trial court vested temporary custody with DCF, due to reports of ongoing threatening, violent, and controlling behavior. In December 2017, the children were adjudicated neglected and committed to DCF. In November 2018, despite DCF filing permanency plans seeking reunification of the children with mother, the children filed petitions for termination of parental rights for both parents; the petitions were subsequently adopted and supported by DCF at the time of trial.
Trial Court’s Critical Reasoning
In support of its decision to terminate parental rights, the trial court considered the totality of the circumstances, including that the parents had failed to rehabilitate to the extent the children could be returned to their care or custody, the children’s expressed wishes and bonds, and the best interests of the children. The court considered the parents’ continuing lack of parenting and co-parenting skills, failure to meet their children’s basic needs, and father’s actions and words, which demonstrated his lack of insight and judgment, as well as his inability to put his children’s needs ahead of his own. Based on this evidence, the court held that the parents could not adequately meet the children’s developmental, emotional, or medical needs at the current time, nor in the foreseeable future. The court held that since the parents had not made adequate progress in the four years that the children were in care, giving the parents additional time to rehabilitate would be detrimental to the well-being of the children, given their need for security and the safety of a stable and permanent home. Significantly, the trial court also considered the evidence that the children had made significant progress and were thriving emotionally, socially, and academically while in the care of their foster parents, who would continue to provide for them. The court found that despite displaying affection for their parents, none of the children exhibited a strong bond with either of them; rather, there was strong evidence suggesting that their strongest bond was with their foster parents. The court also reiterated the fact that the children had consistently, repeatedly, and adamantly stated they did not want to return to either of their parent’s care.
Arguments on Appeal
Father’s first argument was that judicial bias deprived him of a fair trial by the trial court’s having made numerous flagrantly prejudicial comments before and during the trial. He argued that the court conducted itself in a prejudicial manner throughout the trial. The Appellate Court considered this claim to be one falling under the “plain error doctrine;” otherwise, the claim of judicial bias on appeal would be waived if not properly presented to the trial court through a motion for disqualification or a motion for a mistrial. To find error under the plain error doctrine, the Court must find that the error is readily discernable on the face of a factually adequate record and not debatable. After a lengthy discussion of the plain error doctrine, the Court here held that father’s claims of judicial bias, evidenced mostly by adverse rulings towards him, were based on the evidence, relevant to the issues before the trial court, and thoughtfully set out in its memorandum of decision; thus, no plain error existed. This claim was rejected.
Father’s second argument was that the trial court improperly found that he failed to rehabilitate. He claimed that the court misconstrued the proper legal standard for evaluating such, failed to limit its inquiry to whether he satisfied the specific steps, and failed to limit its evaluation to the evidence of his rehabilitation that occurred after the specific steps were issued. The Appellate Court held that a determination with respect to rehabilitation is not solely dependent upon a parent’s technical compliance with specific steps, but rather, whether the parent has gained the insight and ability to care for his or her child, given the age and needs of the child, within a reasonable time. Additionally, while father contends that the date of commitment should have constituted the “starting point” in the rehabilitative process, the Court here found that there was no legal basis for this contention, and that the trial court is permitted to analyze father’s conduct since the case was filed; rather, the dispositive issue was whether, by the time of termination trial, father had rehabilitated. Given that father failed to fully appreciate his parental shortcomings and “coercive control” tendencies, among other factors, the Court held there was evidentiary support for the trial court’s ultimate conclusion that rehabilitation had not occurred. This claim was rejected.
Father’s third argument was that the trial court improperly determined that termination was in the children’s best interests by not giving due consideration the children’s religious affiliation. Father claimed that if the termination were to be affirmed, the children would have to be adopted by a Muslim family that had the ability to sustain the children’s religious affiliation. The Appellate Court held that this claim was unpersuasive for many reasons, including the fact that the trial court did consider the children’s religious affiliation in the memorandum of decision. The Court addressed that father mistakenly assumed the children’s religious identities were rooted in the Muslim faith, a claim which it held was weakened by the trial court’s findings that father did not follow through on providing religious instruction to the children on a consistent basis, e.g. he had not engaged in prayer with the children, the children had expressed anxiety concerning their religious identities, and the children had not attended religious services prior to their removal. Lastly, the Court held that the ultimate inquiry of the trial court in the dispositional proceeding is whether termination is the children’s best interests. Therefore, the Court held that even if a legal requirement exists that the children be placed in a setting that would nurture their existing religious faith, which there is not, DCF’s failure to comply with such a requirement would not be a basis on which to challenge the court’s determination to terminate; rather, it would only be a basis on which to challenge the foster placement of the children. This claim was rejected.
Father’s fourth argument was that the court improperly found that DCF made reasonable efforts to reunify him with his children. In support of this argument, he claimed that DCF unreasonably prolonged the stay of the children in foster care for over four years, that DCF did not address the children’s misunderstandings of their father in therapy, and that DCF acted unreasonably in suspending his overnight visits with his children. Father also argued that DCF violated CGS §17a-96 by placing the children in a household that did not foster the Muslim faith. The Appellate Court held that the “reasonableness” of DCF’s efforts must be assessed in the context of each case. It observed that in light of the trial court’s findings about the difficulties father had in participating in the services offered to him, and the impediments he raised to DCF’s efforts to reunify by attempting to alienate the children from their mother, the length of time that they were in foster care was not unreasonable. The Court also held that father was unable to demonstrate that DCF’s decision to suspend overnight visits undermined the reasonable efforts determination, given that each of the children expressed their opposition to the visits. In regards to the claim that DCF should have placed the children in a Muslim household, the Court held that §17a-96 does not require DCF to place the children with foster parents who foster the same religious beliefs as the parents, and that the trial court properly found that father was afforded ample opportunity to engage his children in matters of faith during visits, which he failed to do. This claim was rejected.
Father’s fifth argument was that DCF was estopped from supporting the termination petitions brought by the children on a theory of equitable estoppel. Father claims DCF’s trial management conference memorandum, in which DCF recommended that reunification efforts should continue with mother, was calculated to induce father to believe that he had rehabilitated, and subsequently, he relied on the belief that he had been rehabilitated. The Appellate Court held that it was unable to reach the merits of this claim because the issue was raised for the first time on appeal, and thus, there was no ruling by the trial court to review. This claim was rejected.
Father’s sixth and final argument was that the trial court improperly denied his motion for revocation of commitment, in claiming that he had demonstrated that the cause underlying the commitment, i.e. parental conflict, no longer existed. The Appellate Court held that that argument was contrary to the trial court’s findings, which were supported by the evidence. This claim was rejected.
Given that all of father’s claims were rejected, the judgments to terminate were affirmed.