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In re Natalie S.

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

May 5, 2016


          Argued April 4, 2016

         Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of Waterbury, Juvenile Matters, Turner, J.

          Michael S. Taylor, with whom was Marina L. Green, for the appellant (respondent mother).

          Benjamin Zivyon, assistant attorney general, with whom were Rachael M. Lavine, assistant attorney general, and, on the brief, George Jepsen, attorney general, Gregory T. D’Auria, solicitor general, for the appellee (petitioner).

          Joseph A. Geremia, Jr., for the minor child.

          DiPentima, C. J., and Sheldon and Bear, Js.


          BEAR, J.

         The respondent mother, Heather S., [1] has appealed from the trial court’s judgment that Natalie S., the minor child of the respondent and Matthew B. (father), was neglected, and granting custody and guardianship of her to the father.[2] The respondent sets forth two claims in her appeal. The first is that Connecticut law requires that the Department of Children and Families (department) continue efforts to reunify Natalie with her, and that the court erred in failing to order final specific steps or that the department make such additional reunification efforts. The second is that the court erred in failing to require the department to conduct further investigation into the father’s fitness before granting custody and guardianship of Natalie to him and in permitting him to remove her to North Carolina. The petitioner, the Commissioner of Children and Families, disputes the respondent’s claims. We affirm the judgment.[3]

         In the neglect petition, the petitioner alleged, pursuant to General Statutes § 46b-120 (6), that Natalie was being denied proper care and attention, physically, educationally, emotionally, or morally, and was being permitted to live under conditions, circumstances or associations injurious to her well-being. Six days after the neglect hearing was concluded, the court issued its October 29, 2015 memorandum of decision. In that memorandum, the court set forth the following summary of the history of the case and extensive, detailed findings of fact that it found by a fair preponderance of the evidence.[4] ‘‘On April 16, 2015, the [petitioner] moved the court for an order of temporary custody of [Natalie] born [in December 2013]. [The petitioner] contemporaneously filed a neglect petition alleging that Natalie was being denied proper care and attention and was living under conditions or circumstances injurious to her well-being. [The respondent] was duly served at her usual place of abode by a state marshal on April 17, 2015, with the motion for an [order of temporary custody], the neglect petition, summons, notice, and an order to appear for hearing. Respondent father was identified as John Doe whose whereabouts were unknown.

         ‘‘[The respondent] appeared on April 17, 2015, for the preliminary [order of temporary custody] hearing. She was appointed counsel and advised. Thereafter, she waived the ten day hearing, agreed to have the [order of temporary custody] sustained and entered a pro forma plea [denying the allegations of neglect]. The case was continued to May 27, 2015, for proof of service and plea by John Doe.

         ‘‘On May 27, 2015, John Doe appeared. He identified himself as Matthew B. [father]. [He] was appointed counsel, advised, and a pro forma plea was entered. Based on the results of paternity tests ordered by the court, Matthew B. was adjudicated the biological father of Natalie on July 14, 2015, and a judgment of paternity entered. On August 17, 2015, he moved the court to vacate the [order of temporary custody] and transfer guardianship and custody of Natalie to him. The motion was continued and consolidated with the neglect trial.

         ‘‘The trial commenced on October 9, 2015. It continued on October 22 and thence to October 23, 2015, whereupon it concluded. [The respondent], the father, and their respective counsel were in attendance throughout the proceedings. [The petitioner] introduced numerous exhibits and testimony of two witnesses . . . investigative social worker Luti Vinca and . . . ongoing treatment social worker Rodney Moore. [The respondent] testified, introduced two exhibits into evidence, and called two witnesses . . . a ‘stay at home mom’ and foster mother, and . . . an expert in substance abuse counseling. The father introduced one exhibit and testified. He called no other witness[es]. The child’s attorney submitted three exhibits and called no witness[es].

         ‘‘The court has heard and carefully considered the testimony of all the witnesses; reviewed and carefully considered all of the exhibits; and has judicially noticed and thoroughly reviewed the verified petition. The credible and relevant evidence offered at trial, and a review of the judicially noticed court records, support the finding of the facts set forth below by a preponderance of the evidence presented.’’

         The court proceeded to make the following factual findings: ‘‘Notice of this proceeding was provided in accordance with the Practice Book. Neither parent claims Native American tribal affiliation. The court is unaware of any proceeding pending in any other court regarding custody of the minor child. This court has jurisdiction.

         ‘‘Due to reports of physical neglect, emotional neglect, substance abuse, mental health issues and criminal issues, [the department] has been involved with [the respondent] and Natalie since February 26, 2015. Three reports were received by [the department] expressing concern about [the respondent’s] alleged substance abuse. On February 26, 2015, it was reported that Natalie was bitten by a dog, had two puncture wounds, was not dressed appropriately for the weather, [the respondent] kept alcohol in her purse, in her car, alcohol was smelled on her breath, and that [the respondent] had been seen driving with Natalie in her car. The allegations could not be substantiated.

         ‘‘On March 7, 2015, [the respondent] was found unresponsive in her vehicle by her roommate in a Dunkin Donuts lot. [The respondent] admitted she’d taken more Ambien than prescribed. On April 16, 2015, [the respondent] was arrested at 2:51 a.m. with Natalie in the car. She was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and with risk of injury to a minor.

         ‘‘[The respondent’s] criminal history includes arrests for possession of a controlled substance on September 4, 2009, felony possession of a controlled substance on May 20, 2010, disorderly conduct on August 30, 2014, and possession of a controlled substance in August, 2014. She has been diagnosed with mental health issues, alcohol abuse, and has been prescribed multiple different medications.

         ‘‘She has struggled with alcohol abuse for many years. By her own admission she has had ‘substance issues since May 2008’ and ‘a significant substance abuse issue since 2012.’ [The respondent] relocated with Natalie from North Carolina to Connecticut in the fall of 2014. She, admittedly, came to [Connecticut] in 2014 because she had alcohol and other substance problems and needed help. While in North Carolina she [had] received mental health treatment for anxiety, depression and [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder]. She and Natalie moved in with [the respondent’s] father whom she described as bipolar and a drug addict.

         ‘‘[The respondent] and the father met and began dating in Greensboro, [North Carolina] between 2011 and 2012. She refused having him listed on Natalie’s birth certificate. She alleged he was very violent with her and kicked her down the stairs while she was pregnant with Natalie. She did not file a report or seek medical treatment concerning any purported abuse. Subsequently, she denied knowing the identity of Natalie’s father. She reported she’d had sexual relations with multiple men while under the influence of alcohol when Natalie was conceived. [The respondent] has endeavored to have the father not be involved in Natalie’s life and have no contact with her. The abuse allegations were vehemently denied by the father. [The respondent] offered no other evidence to substantiate the abuse allegations and thus they were unproven.

         ‘‘[The department] made reasonable efforts prior to April 16, 2015, to prevent the removal of Natalie from her home. Natalie was placed and remains in a nonrelative foster home. She is well cared for, doing well and is medically up to date. No concerns have been noted. [The department] made reasonable efforts to reunify Natalie with both [the respondent] and the father. Natalie is completely dependent upon a consistent, stable, sober caregiver to meet her daily and emergency needs. [The department] has established that [the respondent] has failed in that regard.

         ‘‘Specific steps to effectuate reunification of Natalie with [the respondent] were issued on April 23, 2015. [The department] made reasonable efforts to effectuate the reunification of Natalie with [the respondent]. [The department] offered [the respondent] casework services, visitation services, ...

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