June 29, 2022
In re Vada V. (SC 20603) (SC 20604)
Parents appealed the termination of their parental rights with respect to their children. After the children were adjudicated neglected and committed to DCF, DCF sought to terminate the parents’ rights on the ground that they had failed to rehabilitate. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a virtual TPR trial was held via Microsoft Teams. The parents were represented by separate counsel and participated in the proceedings through audio and video means. They joined the trial via a shared cell phone, outside the proximity of their counsel, but they were able to communicate with counsel through e-mail, text messages, and a messaging application. After the conclusion of the trial, the trial court terminated their rights.
This Court held that the parents’ unpreserved claims that the trial court had violated their rights under Article 1, § 10, and Article 5, § 1, of the Connecticut Constitution by conducting the TPR trial virtually rather than in person, and that they had been denied their rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to physically confront the witnesses against them at the virtual trial were unavailing. Having addressed the same issues and underlying arguments in the companion case of In re Annessa J. (343 Conn. 642), this Court adopted the reasoning and conclusions set forth in that decision, concluded, with respect to parents’ claims under the state constitution, that they failed to establish that there is a fundamental right to an in-person TPR trial, and concluded, with respect to their due process claims, that, even if there is a right to in-person confrontation under these circumstances, there was no factual record or factual findings on which this Court could rely in order to determine whether that right was violated or whether the trial court correctly concluded that the state’s interests were sufficiently great to warrant a virtual trial.
Additionally, this Court held that the record was inadequate to review the parents’ unpreserved claims, which they asserted either under the U.S Constitution, or both the federal and state constitutions, that the state did not provide them with adequate devices and internet connection to participate both visually and by audio in the termination proceeding. The record was silent on, and, in some cases, undermined, the factual predicates necessary to evaluate their claims, as counsel for Mother stated, during the trial, that Mother had more than one device, which contradicted the parents’ claim that they were forced to share the same device. Additionally, the record indicated that the trial court took numerous steps to ensure that the parents could meaningfully participate and communicate with their counsel throughout the trial. The record was largely silent as to the manner in which the parents participated throughout the trial, including whether they participated via audio or video or both at any given time. It was also devoid of any indication that the parents’ cell phone did not allow them to view the trial, and there was no indication that they asked for technical assistance or accommodations from the trial court.
Nevertheless, this Court emphasized the importance of ensuring equal access to justice in the context of virtual hearings and trials, and observed that those public policy considerations were identical to those that this court expressed in the companion case of In re Aisjaha N. (343 Conn. 709).