December 21, 2017
In re: Jacob W., 178 Conn. App. 195 (2017)
The maternal grandmother of the three minor children, who had petitioned the Probate Court for and had been granted custody of the children following the arrest of the respondent father and the children’s mother on charges involving the sexual assault of other minors, filed petitions in the Probate Court for the termination of the parental rights of both parents. The grandmother alleged the statutory grounds of abandonment and the nonexistence of an ongoing parent-child relationship, as father has had no contact with the children since his conviction of the charges and incarceration in 2016, and the mother subsequently consented to the termination of her parental rights. Thereafter, the matter was transferred from the Probate Court to the Superior Court, where the trial court rendered judgments denying the petitions to terminate the father’s parental rights, from which the grandmother appealed to this court. The trial court concluded that the grandmother had failed to prove either abandonment or the lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship by clear and convincing evidence, and based its conclusion on its findings that the father provided for the children financially and was actively involved in their lives prior to his incarceration, that he was prohibited from making contact with the home of the grandmother, the legal guardian of the children, due to a protective order related to the sexual assault charges, that he had contacted the Department of Children and Families to request assistance with having contact with the children during his incarceration, and that he signed up to have Christmas gifts sent to the children through a program offered to incarcerated parents and had requested updates regarding the children through the Probate Court.
- The trial court applied an incorrect legal test for determining whether there was an ongoing parent-child relationship pursuant to the applicable statute (§ 45a-717 [g]  [C]), which requires the court to first determine that no parent-child relationship exists and, second, to determine whether it would be detrimental to the child’s best interests to allow time for such a relationship to develop: in determining whether an ongoing parent-child relationship existed, that court’s inquiry should have focused foremost on whether the children presently had positive feelings toward the respondent father, but, instead, the court focused on the actions that the father undertook to maintain a relationship with the children and did so pursuant to the exception that applies where a custodian has unreasonably interfered with a noncustodial parent’s visitation or other efforts to maintain an ongoing parent-child relationship such that the custodian’s unreasonable interference leads inevitably to the lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship, which would preclude the termination of the noncustodial parent’s parental rights on the ground of no ongoing parent-child relationship; moreover, because a child’s present positive feelings would be enough to establish the existence of an ongoing parent-child relationship, and it is only if the child possesses no present positive feelings for the parent, or if an infant child’s present feelings cannot be ascertained, that a court may consider the question of whether a custodian has unreasonably interfered with the parent’s effort’s to maintain or establish a parent-child relationship, the trial court here could not logically have concluded both that an ongoing parent-child relationship existed and that unreasonable interference inevitably prevented the father from maintaining an ongoing parent child relationship; accordingly, the court’s adjudicatory analysis was erroneous, and a new trial was warranted.
- Even if the trial court’s application of the test for determining whether there was an ongoing parent-child relationship was legally and logically correct, its decision could not stand because the court’s findings were fatally inconsistent; although that court found in the adjudicatory phase that the custodial grandparents had interfered with the parent-child relationship by failing to facilitate contact between the respondent father and the children, and by influencing and manipulating the feelings of the children with false and misleading information about the father, it subsequently found in the dispositional phase that there was no evidence presented demonstrating that the father was prevented from maintaining a meaningful relationship by the unreasonable acts of another person or by the economic circumstances of the parent, and, therefore, this court could not reconcile the trial court’s findings by clear and convincing evidence both that there was interference and that there was no evidence of interference.