June 24, 2020
In re Teagan K.-O
Connecticut Supreme Court 20245 – 2020
June 24, 2020
Subject Matter Jurisdiction Over Predictive Neglect Case Where Parents Moved Out of State
Respondent, father, appealed from the judgment of the trial court denying him his motion to dismiss the petition filed by DCF to adjudicate the respondents’ child, Teagan K.-O, neglected. Father contended that, irrespective of the fact that a petition to terminate his parental rights with respect to another child of theirs was pending in Connecticut when they relocated to Florida, a Connecticut trial court could not exercise subject matter jurisdiction over Teagan’s neglect petition because any neglect of her would never occur in Connecticut. The Supreme Court agreed with father’s jurisdictional argument that the allegations did not satisfy the jurisdictional predicate of the juvenile matter’s provision of Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-121(a)(1), since Teagan was unlikely to be neglected within the state. Thus, the Court held that the trial court improperly denied father’s motion to dismiss the neglect petition, and reversed and remanded with direction to grant the motion.
Facts & Procedural Posture
The respondents were both raised in Connecticut and had a lengthy history of involvement with DCF, which continued after they had children. Mother’s first child was born in Connecticut in 2012, and was later adjudicated neglected and placed in the sole custody of that child’s father, due to concerns about mother’s mental health, parenting ability, domestic violence, and possible physical abuse. Respondent mother and father’s first child together, G, was removed from their custody within one month of his birth in 2015 and adjudicated neglected and placed in DCF custody, with their parental rights later terminated. Mother and father’s second child together, J, was removed from their custody immediately after his birth in 2016, adjudicated neglected, and committed to DCF custody. In April 2018, DCF filed a petition seeking to terminate their parental rights with respect to J, after which the parents moved to Florida.
In May 2018, Teagan was born in a Florida hospital, which contacted Florida DCF after information came to light that her parents’ other children had been removed from their care. Two days after Teagan’s birth, when she was ready to be discharged from the hospital, Florida DCF took emergency custody of her and contacted Connecticut DCF to report that the mother had given birth. One day after Florida DCF took emergency custody of Teagan, Connecticut DCF filed a motion seeking temporary custody of Teagan, and a petition seeking to adjudicate Teagan neglected, on the ground that she would be subject to conditions injurious to her well-being if she remained in her parents’ care, or that she was denied proper care and attention. The motion for temporary custody was denied on the ground that Teagan was not in Connecticut, after which Florida DCF filed a “motion to transfer jurisdiction” to the Connecticut trial court, on the basis of the family’s history with service providers and child protective services in the state. The parents opposed the motion; following a contested hearing, the court concluded: “Connecticut is a more convenient forum state, and the court finds that it is in the best interests of the child… and will promote the efficient administration of justice to transfer jurisdiction to Connecticut.” The following day, the Florida court ratified and adopted the recommendation to transfer jurisdiction to Connecticut.
The Connecticut trial court granted an ex parte Order of Temporary Custody. Teagan was brought to Connecticut and placed with the same foster family caring for her sibling, J., whose termination of parental rights action was still pending. Father then filed a motion to dismiss the pending neglect petition on the ground of lack of subject matter jurisdiction, while DCF contended that Florida’s “inconvenient forum” determination established a basis for the Connecticut trial court’s subject matter jurisdiction under the UCCFJEA. The trial court denied the father’s motion to dismiss, concluding that “it has subject matter jurisdiction over Teagan’s case following the dictates of the [UCCJEA], in that a court of Florida declined to exercise jurisdiction on the ground that Connecticut is the more appropriate forum, [a Florida District Court of Appeal] has affirmed that, and Connecticut has accepted that conclusion.” Father appealed the trial court’s denial of his motion to dismiss; the Supreme Court transferred the appeal.
Connecticut Supreme Court Opinion:
The first issue the Court considered was whether the trial court’s decision to deny the motion to dismiss was immediately appealable, given that a denial of a motion to dismiss on jurisdictional grounds is ordinarily an interlocutory ruling, not a final judgment. The Court agreed with the parents’ argument that the ruling should be immediately appealable, based on the contention that even temporary disruptions to the parent-child relationship can result in irreparable harm, such as may follow from (1) the possible adverse impact on the nature and extent of visitation, which would negatively affect the father’s ability to bond with his infant daughter, and (2) delayed implementation of a permanency plan and subsequent resolution. Therefore, the appeal was deemed appropriate and the Court proceeded to consider its merits.
The second issue the Court considered was the question of whether there is a jurisdictional requirement specific to neglect proceedings. The Court identified and discussed the two governing authorities regarding this jurisdictional issue as (1) Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-121, which governs juvenile matters and “include[s] all proceedings concerning uncared-for, neglected or abused children within this state…” (Emphasis added), and (2) the UCCJEA.
Father argued that § 46b-121’s “neglected within this state” limitation to jurisdiction was not satisfied and that it controlled the outcome of his case, whereas DCF contended that jurisdiction existed under the UCCJEA, and that the act controls exclusively because more than one state is implicated. The Court agreed that § 46b-121’s territorial limitation on jurisdiction was not satisfied, and thus prevented Connecticut from exercising jurisdiction over the neglect petition, irrespective of whether the conditions for the UCCJEA would be met. The Court stated that when the jurisdictional requirements of a statute are not met, the UCCJEA language and purpose do not nonetheless permit the exercise of jurisdiction, since “a paramount purpose of the act is to determine which state having jurisdiction will be permitted to exercise it when two or more states have concurrent jurisdiction,” i.e. the territorial limitation must still be satisfied. The UCCJEA does not create jurisdiction, but merely prescribes the circumstances under which jurisdiction that is otherwise conferred can be exercised.
Since the Court could identify no allegation which would suggest that Teagan would likely be neglected within the state of Connecticut, it determined that jurisdiction to make an original custody determination rests with the state of Florida. Thus, the Court reversed the denial of the father’s motion to dismiss, and remanded the case with direction to grant the motion.
Chief Justice Robinson, with whom Justice Palmer and Justice Mullins join, Dissenting Opinion:
Contrary to the majority, the dissent concluded that the UCCJEA provides an independent basis for subject matter jurisdiction in the specific instance of child custody and neglect cases of interstate dimension, regardless of the child’s presence a state. Further, the dissent held that there was a significant connection jurisdiction between Teagan and Connecticut, thus giving Connecticut jurisdiction over the neglect petition. The dissent agreed with DCF’s argument that § 46b-121(a)(1) does not control, because that statute merely describes the court’s territorial jurisdiction and must be read consistently with related statutes conferring jurisdiction in custody and neglect cases, in particular the UCCJEA, the provisions of which expressly contemplate a child not present in the state. The dissent offered three primary reasons for this conclusion, namely: (1) that statutes should not be read in isolation, but must be considered in the context of related statutes; (2) UCCJEA’s legislative purpose and history, which prioritized jurisdiction over an initial custody determination, by the state having the presumed closest connection to the child in order to avoid interjurisdictional conflict; and (3) the intersection of the UCCJEA and § 46b-121, where the UCCJEA specifically contemplates an interstate child custody dispute and expressly disclaims the necessity of physical presence. In concluding that Connecticut had jurisdiction over the child here, the dissent examined the following factors: (1) a parent’s history of long-term residency in that state; (2) the ongoing presence of a child’s siblings in a state, especially if they are in the state’s legal custody; (3) the presence of other relatives in a state; and (4) a state’s provision of social services to the family.