June 6, 2017

325 Conn. 833

June 6, 2017

Termination of Parental Rights, Reunification Efforts

The Supreme Court, Eveleigh, J, held that: DCF had no obligation to continue reunification efforts for mother and child after the biological father was awarded temporary custody and guardianship; the Department’s continuing involvement in the form of reunification efforts were not necessary to protect the mother’s constitutional right to family integrity. The ruling of the Appellate Court was Affirmed.

In this certified appeal, respondent mother appealed the judgement of the Appellant Court affirming the judgement of the trial court adjudicating the child neglected and granting temporary custody and guardianship to the child’s biological father. The sole issue on appeal was whether the trial court was required to order the department to continue reunification efforts despite awarding custody and guardianship to the father. The Appellate Court had concluded that it was not required to provide reunification efforts, and the mother challenged this conclusion.

She also asserted that her parental rights were not terminated she retained the constitutional right to family integrity, in which the department is required to make efforts to protect.

She argued, pursuant to General Statutes § 17a-111b (a), that the plain language of the statute required that the department provide reunification efforts with her because the trial court had not determined that such efforts were not required, nor had it approved a permanency plan. In contrast, the Court indicated that the plain language of the statute provides that the department “shall make reasonable efforts to reunify a parent with a child unless certain conditions are met.” The singular form indicated that reunification efforts toward one parent satisfied the statutory requirement and that, if reunification was accomplished with one parent, additional reunification efforts were not required. 

Further, if adjudication results in an order of commitment, the court is required to issue specific steps for reunification. However, the statutory scheme provides alternatives to the commitment of a child to the custody of the department. In particular, § 46b-129 (j) provides that the legal guardianship of a child adjudicated neglected may be vested with any suitable and worthy third party. Some provisions include language allowing the court to order the department’s continued involvement, but this language was not included where legal guardianship is placed with a third party. This absence supported the court’s reasoning that the department’s involvement ended when guardianship was placed with the father and the department was not required to continue providing reunification efforts.

In this case, the court issued temporary specific steps to the mother pursuant to § 46b-129 (c) and the department provided reunification efforts through the neglect petition hearing. The mother, however, failed to seek either custody or guardianship at the hearing and on appeal she did not contest the trial court’s custody and guardianship decision. Although the trial court awarded only “temporary/nonpermanent custody and guardianship” to the father, the Supreme Court found that its decision not to order continuing supervision was controlling and demonstrated that the state’s involvement in Natalie’s life would cease.

The respondent asserted that because her parental rights had not been terminated, she retained a constitutional right to family integrity. As to this second argument, the Court noted that the dispositional decision must be based on the child best interest and the child’s and parent’s interests may diverge. The trial court determined that awarding guardianship to the father was in the child’s best interest. Once guardianship was granted to the father, he and the child retained the constitutional right to family integrity. Therefore, continued reunification efforts for the mother would not be consistent with the right to family integrity.