In re Rachel J.

Connecticut Appellate Court

97 Conn. App. 748 (2006)

October 3, 2006


In a sad case that involved significant physical trauma and sexual exploitation, the Appellate Court affirmed the termination of a mother’s parental rights in In re Rachel J. As is often the case in scenarios of abuse and neglect, the respondent mother in Rachel J was herself involved with the Department of Children and Families (“Department”) dating back to her childhood, when at the age of nine, she was placed in the Department’s care due to substance abuse and mental health problems of her mother. The respondent’s two children, R, born in 1993, and N, a special needs child born in 2002, resided with the respondent until January 2004, when the Department removed the children due to several incidents, events, and reports of abuse and neglect.

Interestingly, the Department had taken several steps prior to January 2004 in order to ensure the children’s safety after several reports of domestic violence perpetrated by mom’s boyfriend, who allegedly made sexually explicit advances at R when she was eight, and who then physically assaulted the respondent in the presence of her two children. Despite these occurrences, the Department did not remove the children until January 2004, when the respondent pulled R out of bed by her hair, essentially throwing her into the middle of the room and dropped her to the floor, causing a severe fracture of her elbow. Though the respondent attempted to hide R’s injuries by keeping her out of school after the incident, the Department pursued the case and eventually removed the children via a ninety-six hour hold on January 8, 2004. On January 12, 2004, the Department filed co-terminous petitions to terminate mom’s parental rights. The trial court terminated those rights after a contested trial in June 2005 – upholding the sole ground stated in the petition – that the respondent, as a result of sexual molestation and severe physical abuse, denied R the care, guidance or control necessary for her well being under Conn. Gen. Stat. § 17a-112(j)(3)(C). The court also terminated the mother’s rights as to N on the sole ground that she “committed an assault through [a] deliberate non-accidental act that resulted in serious bodily injury of another child … of the parent,” pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. § 17a-112(j)(3)(F).

On appeal, the Respondent unsuccessfully argued that the physical abuse (fractured elbow and hair pulling) did not rise to the level of serious bodily injury. The court dismissed this point rather summarily by noting that the testimony of several witnesses, as well as the statements’ given by R indicated that the event actually occurred. In addition, the court refused to import the definition of “serious bodily injury” from the criminal code merely because the legislature did not define the term in 17a-112(j)(3). As with other statutory scenarios, the court choose to adopt the “commonly approved usage” doctrine – and proceeded to define the word through a quick peek into Webster’s Dictionary. With that as background, R’s injuries met the definition of “serious,” which the dictionary indicated as “such as to cause considerable distress, anxiety or inconvenience.”

Finally, the final claim that it was not in R’s best interests to terminate parental rights fell short of the mark as well. Invoking the standard whereby it would only overturn a trial court decision which was “clearly erroneous,” the court indicated that merely professing that a bond existed between the respondent and R was not enough to demonstrate that the “best interests” standard had not been achieved. The trial court record was “replete with evidence” that the respondent exposed R to repeated physical and sexual abuse, and that R herself expressed significant negative feelings about her mother. In that light, the court had little difficulty affirming the termination.

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