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In re Sydnei V.

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

September 15, 2016


          Argued April 5, 2016 [**]

         Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of Middlesex, Child Protection Session at Middletown, Hon. Barbara M. Quinn, judge trial referee.

          David J. Reich, for the appellant (respondent).

          Benjamin M. Wattenmaker, assigned counsel, for the appellee (petitioner).

          George Jepsen, attorney general, Gregory T. D'Auria, solicitor general, and Benjamin Zivyon and Carolyn Signoralli, assistant attorneys general, filed a brief for the Commissioner of Children and Families as amicus curiae.

          Lavine, Mullins and Harper, Js.


          LAVINE, J.

         The respondent mother appeals from the judgment of the trial court terminating her parental rights in her daughter (child) pursuant to General Statutes § 45a-717 (g) (2) (A), abandonment, and § 45a-717 (g) (2) (C), no ongoing parent-child relationship.[1] On appeal, the respondent claims that the court (1) violated her right to due process by failing to determine, during the dispositional phase of the termination of parental rights proceeding, that there would be some adverse effect to the child by failing to terminate her parental rights in the child, (2) erred in finding that it was in the child's best interests to terminate the respondent's parental rights as to the child, and (3) committed plain error by failing to canvass her prior to trial as required by In re Yasiel R., 317 Conn. 773, 120 A.3d 1188 (2015) (Yasiel canvass), and In re Daniel N., 163 Conn.App. 322, 135 A.3d 1260, cert. granted, ___Conn. ___, A.3d___ (2016).[2] We disagree and, therefore, affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         In its memorandum of decision, the court, Hon. Barbara M. Quinn, judge trial referee, made the following findings of fact. J.V. and his wife, K.V., are the child's legal guardians (guardians).[3] In December, 2014, in the Court of Probate for the District of Danbury, the petitioner, J.V., filed an application to terminate the respondent's parental rights, pursuant to General Statutes § 45a-717. The application alleged that the respondent's parental rights should be terminated on the ground of abandonment; General Statutes § 45a-717 (g) (2) (A); and no ongoing parent-child relationship; General Statutes § 45a-717 (g) (2) (C).[4] Pursuant to a motion filed by counsel for the child, the matter was transferred to the Superior Court for Juvenile Matters. See General Statutes § 45a-715. The trial was conducted between October 5 and October 8, 2015.

         The respondent and the child's father had dated one another while they were in high school. They later married and had one child who is the subject of the present termination proceeding. The child was born in2005. The couple's relationship was marked by domestic violence and alcohol abuse. In 2006, they were living apart from one another. Despite their differences, the couple tried to ‘‘patch things up.'' One evening they went out to dinner and were involved in a serious motor vehicle crash. The child's father was killed at the scene, and the respondent suffered serious injuries. The accident investigation concluded that the respondent and the child's father were intoxicated with blood alcohol levels in excess of the legal limit.

         The respondent subsequently married G.U. with whom she has a son, Z. The respondent's relationship with G.U. also was characterized by domestic violence, and drug and alcohol abuse. The child and Z were exposed to a great deal of turbulence. As a consequence of their domestic violence, the respondent and G.U. were arrested on numerous occasions. Although the respondent reported that G.U. instigated the violence, the court found that the respondent was the primary aggressor. In January, 2010, the respondent was so angry that she attacked G.U. with a knife and tried to cut his face. The child, who was five years old at the time, was awakened from sleep by the fracas. She still recalled the incident at the time of trial.

         On January 17, 2010, the Department of Children and Families (department) obtained an order of temporary custody and removed both children from the care of respondent and G.U. and placed them with the guardians. The child was adjudicated neglected on November 22, 2010, and placed in the guardians' care.[5] When the child entered the guardians' home, she was terrified of knives, including the mere mention of them. She was shy, withdrawn, anxious, and suffered night terrors. When she was traveling in a motor vehicle, the child became nervous and fearful that the respondent was following and would take her away. The guardians placed her in therapy, which was of some benefit to her.

         At the time of the neglect proceedings, the court, Sommer, J., ordered once-a-week visitation between the respondent and the child and joint counseling for them. The therapist was to work with the respondent and the child to improve their relationship and expand visitation and was authorized to make recommendations regarding the progress, duration, and frequency, as well as the supervision, of the visits between the respondent and the child. The hoped-for normalization of the parent-child relationship between the respondent and the child did not take place due to the trauma the child had suffered as a result of the constant violence in her parental home. The child did not want to talk about her life with the respondent, even five years later at the time of the termination of parental rights trial.

         The respondent and the child had scheduled visitation during the first year and one-half following the transfer of guardianship. The child was anxious, however, and her symptoms increased prior to each visit. It was difficult to schedule the time and location of the visits. The guardians asked the respondent to provide adequate notice so that they could prepare the child emotionally to be ready for the visit. The respondent often gave notice at the last minute, after the child had gone to bed for the night, which made it difficult for the guardians to prepare her for the visit, which took place at restaurants, in the community, and in parks. Sometimes Z or the court appointed guardian ad litem attended the visits. On the way to the visits, the child complained of having a stomach ache and that she needed to throw up. The visits lasted for approximately one hour, sometimes longer. Often the child wished the visits to be shortened. Occasionally, the respondent brought the child a gift. Once, the respondent took the child to a ‘‘Build-a-Bear'' store, where she purchased a teddy bear for the child. When the child returned to the guardians' home, she wanted to throw out the bear. By early 2012, the visits between the respondent and the child were sporadic and far between. The two were no longer were engaged in joint therapy, and the therapist did not recommend increasing the amount of time the respondent spent with the child.

         In March, 2012, the respondent filed a motion for increased visitation. The parties reached an agreement that, after three individual therapy sessions, the respondent could have therapeutic visits with the child. The respondent, however, failed to attend the three required therapy sessions, and all visits ceased. The respondent last visited the child on April 9, 2012. The respondent and child have had no contact since then.

         The respondent claimed that she failed to continue therapy and engage in therapeutic visits with the child for financial reasons. She had no insurance and inadequate income from her employment. The court found no evidence that the respondent made any attempt to seek therapy on a sliding pay scale or to ask for help from others, such as the guardian ad litem, to find affordable therapy. She made only a minimal effort to comply with the court-ordered conditions for increased access to the child.

         In addition to failing to find means by which she could increase her access to the child, the respondent did not take advantage of other avenues open to her that would demonstrate her commitment to the child. The respondent provided no financial support for the child nor did she send the child letters or gifts. She failed to inquire about the child's school progress, medical appointments, or her life in general. The court found that whatever her level of concern may have been, the respondent failed to manifest it in a concrete manner to inform herself about the child's daily life and progress.

         The respondent filed another motion for visitation in December, 2013. The department investigated and filed a visitation report dated July 7, 2014. After reviewing the history and the child's relationship with the respondent, the department did not recommend visitation.

         Court-ordered psychological evaluations of both the respondent and the child were performed in October, 2014, by Deborah Gruen, a clinical and forensic psychologist. The guardians also were interviewed. On the basis of Gruen's testimony at trial, the court found that the respondent was an emotionally sensitive person who has a propensity for unstable relationships. She can be irritable, demanding, and charming at the same time, is manipulative in her relationships, and exercises poor judgment. Although Gruen did not provide a diagnosis, she found that the respondent exhibits antisocial behavior and borderline personality traits. She recommended that the respondent receive intensive psychotherapy with a seasoned clinician to deal with the trauma the respondent herself has experienced, both as a child and in her adult relationships.[6] Without intensive treatment, Gruen's prognosis for the respondent is guarded. Because the respondent was pregnant in November, 2014, Gruen recommended that the respondent wait at least six months before entering therapeutic intervention. This period of time was needed to give the respondent time to adjust to all of the significant changes that were coming to her life.

         The court asked Gruen to answer additional questions, which she did in August, 2015. Gruen summarized the treatment the respondent had received and results of the conversation she had with the respondent's clinician. By the end of July, 2015, the respondent had had twenty-two sessions of therapy and had made substantial strides to address her long-standing trauma-related issues. The respondent has stable employment with considerable management responsibilities and has custody of her youngest child. Z is in her care several times a week, but his father is his primary caretaker. The respondent is beginning the difficult introspection and emotional work that she needs to improve herself for the sake of her children as well as herself. The court found that the respondent's changes came about after the child had been out of the respondent's primary care for five years.

         According to Gruen, the child has only bad memories of life with the respondent, and she does not wish to see or interact with her. The child suffers underlying anxiety and needs to strengthen her ability to acknowledge her anxieties and address her fears on a more realistic basis. The therapist did not recommend that the child visit with the respondent until the respondent had undertaken intensive therapy. In the spring of 2015, the child was in therapy, having been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress, as a result of the trauma she has witnessed. The child's therapist echoed Gruen's concern about the child's building a relationship with the respondent. Children in her situation are very cautious, hostile, and estranged. The therapist could not predict what would happen if the child and respondent met, as there could be widely different outcomes. As the child grows, however, the therapist opined that she will need some access to the respondent; children who are in the child's situation grow-up ‘‘missing a part of themselves, '' which is necessary for their stable, balanced, and mature adult development.[7]

         The court found, according to the guardian ad litem, that in 2011, the child was very anxious and uncomfortable whenever the respondent was mentioned. The child wanted to remain with the guardians, and her attitude was unchanged in 2015. She is settled in the guardians' home where she is a happy and loving ten year old, who is enthusiastic about school and the things that she does with her family. In the opinion of the guardian ad litem, termination of the respondent's parental rights is in the best interest of the child.

         The court analyzed the facts and the grounds alleged for termination of the respondent's parental rights in the child in the adjudicatory phase of the proceedings. As to the ground of abandonment alleged pursuant to § 45a-717 (g) (2) (A), [8] the court noted that the appellate courts of this state have held that ‘‘[t]he commonly understood general obligations of parenthood entail these minimum attributes: (1) [the expression of] love and affection for the child; (2) [the expression of] personal concern over the health, education and general well-being of the child; (3) the duty to supply the necessary food, clothing, and medical care; (4) the duty to provide an adequate domicile; and (5) the duty to furnish social and religious guidance.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) In re Kezia M., 33 Conn.App. 12, 18, 632 A.2d 112, cert. denied, 228 Conn. 915, 636 A.2d 847 (1993).

         Abandonment has been defined as a parent's failure to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern or responsibility as to the welfare of the child, and maintain implies a continuing, reasonable degree of interest, concern, or responsibility and not merely a sporadic showing thereof. See In re Paul M., 148 Conn.App. 654, 664, 85 A.3d 1263, cert. denied, 311 Conn. 938, 88 A.3d 550 (2014).

         On the basis of the clear and convincing evidence before the court, it found that the respondent had not demonstrated the minimum attributes of parenthood as they are understood in the law. She has not expressed love and affection toward the child in any meaningful way and has failed to inquire about the child's health, education, and general well-being, and has not made any effort to provide financial support for the child. Although the court did not doubt that in her heart, the respondent loves the child and wishes that she could visit with her, the respondent is aware that the child does not wish to have contact with her. The court found that the respondent is wise enough not to force contact with the child.

         The court credited the respondent with good intentions, but noted that thoughts and wishes are insufficient to sustain a child. The court found that the respondent had choices to make in the five years since the child left her care. On three separate occasions, in 2010, 2012, and 2014, the respondent was offered visits with the child if she entered therapy. It was not until 2014 that the respondent began the arduous process of making positive changes in her life. Although the respondent has made sufficient progress to enable her to have her two younger children[9] in her care on a regular basis, that progress has been too little and too late for the child who is the subject of the present termination of parental rights petition.

         The respondent failed to write to the child or to send her gifts. She failed to communicate with the guardians as to the child's well-being. Although the respondent believes that the guardians prevented her from doing so, she failed to reach out to take advantage of the resources available to her, such as the child's guardian ad litem and attorney. The court concluded that the clear and convincing evidence of respondent's failures constitutes legal abandonment.

         Although a court need find only one statutory ground to terminate parental rights in a child; see In re Alexander C., 67 Conn.App. 417, 427, 787 A.2d 608 (2001), aff'd, 262 Conn. 308, 813 A.2d 87 (2003); the court adjudicated the second reason alleged by the petitioner. To grant a termination of parental rights petition on the ground that there is no ongoing parent-child relationship pursuant to § 45-717 (g) (2) (C), [10] the court must find that no parent-child relationship exists and that looking prospectively, it would be detrimental to the child's best interest to allow time for such a relationship to develop. See In re Christian P., 98 Conn.App. 264, 269, 907 A.2d 1261 (2006). In the present case, the court found that there is no remaining parent-child relationship between the respondent and the child; it evaporated in the long period of time in which the respondent had no contact with the child. The critical issue, the court found, was whether it is detrimental to the child's best interest to permit more time for such a relationship to develop.

         The court found that the child is happy and secure in the guardians' home and her school. The mere mention of the respondent upsets the child. The child has no positive memories of the respondent. Permitting more time in the child's young life for such a relationship to develop is detrimental to the child's best interest when the child has been out of the respondent's care for more than one half of her life. The court concluded from the clear and convincing evidence that the petitioner had proven that there ...

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