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In re Unique R.

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

February 17, 2017

IN RE UNIQUE R.[*]

          Argued September 8, 2016

         Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of Fairfield, Juvenile Matters at Bridgeport, Maronich, J.

          Marina L. Green, assigned counsel, with whom, was James P. Sexton, assigned counsel, for the appellant (respondent father).

          Evan O'Rourke, assistant attorney general, with whom were Stephen Vitelli, assistant attorney general, and, on the brief, George Jepsen, attorney general, Gregory T. D'Auria, solicitor general, and Benjamin Zivyon, assistant attorney general, for the appellee (petitioner).

          Kate M. Zarro, for the minor child.

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

          OPINION

          SHELDON, J.

         In this appeal from the judgment of the trial court terminating his parental rights to his minor daughter, Unique R., the respondent father, Samuel M., [1]claims that the court erred in concluding, as required to support a judgment of termination under General Statutes § 17a-112 (j) (1), [2] that the Department of Children and Families (department) made reasonable efforts to reunify him with his daughter, in accordance with General Statutes § 17a-111b (a), [3] before the Commissioner of Children and Families (petitioner) initiated termination proceedings against him. The respondent contends, more specifically, that the department's efforts to reunify him with his daughter were not reasonable because it failed to conduct an adequate investigation into the availability and suitability of two of his relatives, his mother and his sister, Jennifer D., to serve as possible placement resources for Unique after she was taken into the petitioner's custody pursuant to an ex parte order of temporary custody at an earlier stage of the investigation that led ultimately to the filing of a termination petition against him. The respondent claims that the department's failure to conduct an adequate investigation into the availability and suitability of his mother and his sister to serve as possible placement resources for Unique, after he had provided their names and contact information to the department for that purpose, precluded the trial court from finding that the department had made reasonable efforts to reunify him with his daughter, and thus requires this court to reverse the trial court's judgment terminating his parental rights.

         We disagree with the respondent for two primary reasons. First, the department's investigation of relative resources is not aimed at the reunification of the child with his or her parent and is therefore not a necessary consideration when determining whether to terminate a parent's parental rights. Second, even if the department's alleged failure to exercise due diligence in investigating relative resources was a proper consideration in assessing the reasonableness of its efforts to reunify the respondent with his daughter, said assessment is based upon a totality of the circumstances, taking multiple factors into consideration. We thus affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         This case arises against the background of the following factual and procedural history, as described by the trial court in its memorandum of decision terminating the respondent's parental rights to Unique. Unique was born in January, 2011, to her mother, Kaycee R. The respondent, Unique's biological father, was not present for her birth and, in fact, had no contact with her throughout the first two years of her life. Thereafter, in February, 2013, the department received an anonymous phone call concerning the health and safety of Unique and Jeramiah P., her half brother by another father, who were then living in their mother's home. During its ensuing investigation as to the children's welfare, the department initially allowed the children to remain in the custody of Kaycee R. while providing her with assistance in caring for them. When that arrangement proved to be unsuccessful, however, the petitioner filed separate neglect petitions as to each child on November 14, 2013, on the common ground that they were being denied proper care in their mother's home, where the living conditions were injurious to their well-being.

         On January 21, 2014, the petitioner invoked a ninety-six hour hold as to Unique and Jeramiah, pursuant to General Statutes § 17a-101g (e), [4] and removed them from their mother's home, citing concerns that the home environment posedanimmediate physical danger to them. Three days later, on January 24, 2014, the petitioner requested the issuance of an ex parte order of temporary custody. The ex parte order was issued by the trial court, Kaplan, J., on January 27, 2014. After Unique was taken into custody by the petitioner, she was diagnosed as suffering from asthma and anemia, was found to have high levels of lead in her blood, and was determined to be experiencing developmental delays.

         Upon issuing the ex parte order of temporary custody, the court provided the respondent, pursuant to General Statutes § 46b-129 (b), [5] with several ‘‘preliminary specific steps, '' which it deemed necessary for him to take in order to address the problems that had led to the issuance of the order of temporary custody, and thus to gain custody of Unique. Those specific steps included, inter alia, requirements that the respondent: (1) keep all appointments set by the department; (2) participate in parenting and individual counseling sessions to address how substance abuse affected his life and parenting; (3) submit to treatment programs; (4) submit to random drug testing and refrain from using drugs or abusing alcohol; (5) obtain and maintain adequate housing and legal income; (6) visit Unique as often as permitted by the department; and (7) ‘‘[w]ithin thirty (30) days of this order, and at any time after that, tell [the department] in writing the name, address, family relationship and birth date of any person(s) who [he] would like the department to investigate and consider as a placement resource for the child(ren).''[6] At the same time and pursuant to the same statute, the trial court provided specific steps to the department, ordering it, inter alia: (1) to provide the respondent with case management services and referrals to treatment programs for his mental health and substance abuse issues; and (2) to ‘‘complete the investigation and consideration of any person(s) whom the respondent has properly identified as a placement resource for the chil-d(ren) [within thirty days of the receipt of written notice by the respondent.]''

         After Unique and Jeramiah were removed from their mother's home, they were initially placed in emergency foster care. The following month, they were transiti-oned into a nonrelative, medically complex foster home under the care of Mr. and Mrs. J. In that same time frame, the department began to investigate the children's relatives in an effort to place the children with family members while they were separated from their parents. To that end, after their maternal grandparents filed a motion to intervene on February 11, 2014, the department began to investigate the possibility of placing Unique and Jeramiah in their home. Ultimately, however, the department declined to pursue such a placement because the grandparents already were caring for Unique's four older siblings.

         On May 7, 2014, the trial court adjudicated the neglect petitions as to Unique and Jeramiah. The respondent had been duly served with the neglect petition for Unique, but he had defaulted. The court adjudged both children to be neglected and committed them to the petitioner's custody. At that time, the trial court provided the respondent with ‘‘final specific steps, '' which it deemed necessary for him to take to address the problems that had led to the neglect adjudication, and thus to gain custody of Unique.[7]

         The following day, May 8, 2014, the department made a referral to the state of Alabama, pursuant the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, General Statutes § 17a-175, in an effort to place Jeramiah with his paternal aunt, Cory P., a resident of Alabama whom Jeramiah's father had presented as a potential placement resource for him. Cory agreed to start adoptive parenting classes in August, 2014, but stated that she might have difficulty in obtaining the necessary medical examination due to its cost. This referral ultimately was denied by Alabama because Cory missed a filing deadline in the application process and also was unable, as she had foreseen, to obtain the necessary physical examination due to her lack of health insurance.

         On February 25, 2015, the petitioner filed separate termination petitions with respect to the two children. The petition for termination with respect to Unique alleged that the respondent's parental rights as to Unique should be terminated on two grounds: first, that he had failed to rehabilitate since she was adjudged to be neglected; and second, that he had no ongoing parent-child relationship with her. The termination trial was scheduled for January, 2016.

         After the petitioner filed the termination petitions, but before the termination trial began, the department continued to investigate possible relative resources for the placement of Unique and Jeramiah. Among the persons it attempted to investigate for that purpose were the respondent's mother and his sister, Jennifer D. The respondent had proposed both women as possible placement resources for Unique and informed the department that the best way to reach them was by calling his mother's telephone number, which he provided. Although the department attempted to contact the two women by calling them at that number, it never made contact with them because its call was not returned. The department also sought to investigate the availability and suitability of the respondent's other sister, Samantha R., to serve as a possible placement resource for Unique and Jeramiah because, at one point, she had expressed a possible interest in adopting them. The department determined, however, that Samantha was not in a suitable economic position to care for both children, and so it ceased all efforts to recruit her for that purpose. In June, 2015, several months after the petitioner had filed termination petitions as to Jeramiah and Unique, the department resumed its efforts to place them with Jeramiah's paternal aunt, Cory, in Alabama.[8]Through the coordinated efforts of the department and Cory's healthcare provider, she obtained the necessary medical examination for that purpose in late 2015. Thereafter, upon completing a second Interstate Compact referral, the department began the process of licensing Cory as a relative foster parent. To that end, by the end of November, 2015, Cory had completed all of the necessary foster care classes, and her home had been approved as a suitable living space for the children. These promising efforts ultimately came to naught, however, when the department received a phone call from Cory on January 12, 2016, the day before the scheduled start of the termination trial, informing it that she was no longer able to care for the children. The trial commenced the following day.

         The trial continued on three separate days until January 27, 2016. The respondent did not attend the trial, but his counsel was present and participated fully on his behalf. Thereafter, on February 9, 2016, the trial court rendered its decision, terminating the respondent's parental rights to Unique.

         In its memorandum of decision, the trial court made several findings that are relevant to this appeal. First, it provided a comprehensive review of the children's lives, describing their educational and healthcare needs and explaining how those needs were then being met by Mr. and Mrs. J., their foster parents. The court next found, inter alia, that the department had made continuous efforts to place the children with family members, although it noted specifically, with regard to the two relatives whom the respondent had proposed as possible placement resources for Unique, that ‘‘[the department] ha[d] never been able to contact either [of them] at the phone number which he provided.''

         As for the respondent, the court found that he had had ‘‘a long history of substance abuse and mental health issues'' and that he was ‘‘currently diagnosed with psychotic disorder, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress syndrome.'' The court further noted that the respondent had had no interaction with his daughter until she was more than two years old, and that his later contact with her in the two years prior to trial had been sporadic.

         In the adjudicatory portion of its memorandum of decision, the court first noted that the petitioner had alleged two statutory grounds for termination of the respondent's parental rights to Unique, pursuant to § 17a-112 (j) (3): (1) that Unique had ‘‘been found in a prior proceeding to have been neglected . . . and the [respondent had] failed to achieve such degree of personal rehabilitation as would encourage the belief that . . . [the respondent] could assume a responsible position within the life of the child;'' and (2) that ‘‘there was no ongoing parent-child relationship''[9] between the respondent and Unique.

         As for the first alleged ground for the termination of the respondent's parental rights, the court found, for the following reasons, that that ground had been established by clear and convincing evidence. The department had provided extensive services to aid the respondent in his rehabilitation. Those services had included ‘‘parenting classes and education, both inpa-tient and outpatient substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, supervised visitation and case management . . . .''[10] Despite the provision of such services, the respondent continued to suffer from ‘‘debilitating mental health and substance abuse ...


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