October 30, 2018
In re Zakai F. – 185 Conn. App. 752 (2018) – November
Revocation of Guardianship
Respondent mother appealed a trial court judgment denying her motion for the reinstatement of guardianship of her minor son, Zakai.
In July 2013, mother voluntarily agreed to relinquish temporary guardianship of Zakai to his aunt, while mother pursued employment, housing, and a reliable vehicle. She reassumed guardianship of Zakai in February 2014. Shortly thereafter, Zakai was physically assaulted and injured by her boyfriend while she was at work.
Due in part to Zakai’s emotional and physical state following that incident, he returned to his aunt’s care, as agreed upon by all parties. Mother requested that he return to her less than a week later. Instead, aunt filed a petition for custody and guardianship in Probate Court, which was allowed ex parte.
In July 2014, the case transferred to the Family Division of Superior Court, and in September 2014, all parties agreed that a GAL be appointed for Zakai. Mother was to continue anger management counseling, therapy & parenting classes, and was to have supervised visits up to twice a week.
In April 2015, the case transferred to Juvenile Court, and in June, the court ordered DCF to do a guardianship study. In September 2016, the parties ultimately came to an agreement that guardianship would go to the aunt, with unsupervised daytime visits to be held between Zakai and his mother.
In June 2017, mother again filed a motion to reinstate her rights to Zakai, and the court ordered another DCF guardianship study. In December, the court ordered Zakai to begin overnight visits with mother, on the conditions that she be only caretaker and that there be no contact between the child and unrelated male adults.
In February 2018, the GAL moved for a suspension of overnight visits due to mother having an unrelated male stay at her home while Zakai was there. The court heard testimony, and in March, issued a decision denying mother’s earlier motion for reinstatement of the guardianship, and granting the GAL’s motion. At that time, the court found that despite the fact that there had never been a judicial adjudication of neglect or abuse, a reinstatement of mother’s rights was not in the child’s best interest.
Mother appealed, based on a claim that her motion was denied without a showing that she was unfit, and without a finding by clear and convincing evidence that Zakai would be at substantial risk of physical or emotional harm if the guardianship were terminated. The Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s decision. It found that the applicable standard at transfer of guardianship proceedings is proof of the child’s best interests by a fair preponderance of the evidence, as found in Connecticut’s statutes, Practice Book provisions, and Supreme Court precedent.
Mother also claimed that the trial court failed to apply the constitutional presumption that she, as a fit parent, would act in best interest of her child, violating her constitutional rights to custody of her child. The Appellate Court found that her argument failed under the third prong of State v. Golding (213 Conn. 233), and that the trial court properly considered evidence rebutting the presumption that reunification was in Zakai’s best interest, e.g. that he had debilitating emotional stress leading up to the overnights, did not feel safe and secure in his mother’s care, and that per testimony of his teacher and therapist, his mental and emotional state deteriorated subsequent to the overnights.
Lastly, mother claimed that the trial court abused its discretion in finding that it was in Zakai’s best interest to remain in the care, custody, and guardianship of his aunt. The Appellate Court found that it had not, i.e. that the trial court could have reasonably concluded as it did, given that it properly considered evidence presented rebutting the presumption that reunification with his mother was in his best interest.