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In re Jacob W.

Supreme Court of Connecticut

February 15, 2019

IN RE JACOB W. ET AL.[*]

          Argued September 11, 2018

         Procedural History

         Petitions to terminate the respondents' parental rights with respect to their minor children, brought to the Probate Court for the district of Ellington and transferred to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Tolland, Juvenile Matters at Rockville, where the respondent mother consented to termination; thereafter, the case was tried to the court, Westbrook, J.; judgments denying the petitions as to the respondent father, from which the petitioner appealed to the Appellate Court, DiPentima, C. J., and Prescott and Mihalakos, Js., which reversed the trial court's judgments and remanded the case to that court for a new trial, and the respondent father, on the granting of certification, appealed to this court. Affirmed.

          Benjamin M. Wattenmaker, assigned counsel, with whom, on the brief, was Amir Shaikh, assigned counsel, for the appellant (respondent father).

          James P. Sexton, assigned counsel, with whom were Matthew C. Eagan, assigned counsel, and, on the brief, Megan L. Wade, assigned counsel, for the appellee (petitioner).

          Palmer, McDonald, D'Auria, Mullins, Kahn, Ecker and Vertefeuille, Js.

          OPINION

          KAHN, J.

         This certified appeal requires us to clarify the circumstances under which a petitioner is precluded from relying on an alleged lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship as a basis for terminating a noncustodial parent's rights.[1] The respondent father, Daniel W., appeals from the judgment of the Appellate Court, which reversed the judgments of the trial court denying the petitions for termination of the respondent's parental rights with respect to his three minor children and remanded the case for a new trial. In re Jacob W., 178 Conn.App. 195, 219, 172 A.3d 1274 (2017). The respondent contends that the Appellate Court improperly concluded that the trial court had applied an incorrect legal test in determining that the petitioner, [2] the maternal grandmother of the minor children, had failed to prove the nonexistence of an ongoing parent-child relationship by clear and convincing evidence. See id., 207. The respondent claims that, in so concluding, the Appellate Court incorrectly reasoned that the trial court improperly rested its analysis on inconsistent propositions.[3] The respondent further contends that, even if the trial court applied an incorrect legal test to determine that the petitioner had failed to prove the lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship, the judgment of the trial court may be upheld on the basis that the court also found that the petitioner failed to prove that allowing further time for a parent-child relationship to develop would be detrimental to the best interests of the children. Although we agree with the Appellate Court that the trial court applied an incorrect legal test, our conclusion rests on different grounds. Specifically, we conclude that the trial court incorrectly concluded that, under the facts of the present case, it was required to depart from the usual test to determine whether a petitioner has established a lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship. As we explain in this opinion, the facts as found by the trial court did not support a departure from the ordinary inquiry and instead required the court to base its decision on the present feelings and memories of the children rather than the actions of the respondent. We further conclude that the trial court's determination that the petitioner failed to prove that allowing further time for a parent-child relationship to develop would be detrimental to the best interests of the children was predicated on a clearly erroneous factual finding. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Appellate Court.

         The record reveals the following relevant facts, found by the trial court or otherwise undisputed, and procedural history. The respondent and his then wife, J, had three children, Jacob, born in 2006, N, born in 2008, and C, born in 2012. Jacob, N and C have been living in the home of their maternal grandparents since May, 2012, when the respondent, J and the children moved in with them. When the grandfather asked the respondent to leave in October, 2012, he moved in with his mother, while J and the children remained with the grandparents. The respondent continued to have contact with the children until he was arrested on April 2, 2014, and charged with multiple counts of sexual assault of a minor. On July 3, 2014, J also was arrested and charged with conspiracy in connection with the same set of incidents that gave rise to the respondent's arrest.

         As a result of the criminal charges against him, the respondent was convicted, following a jury trial, of six counts of risk of injury to a child in violation of General Statutes (Rev. to 2013) § 53-21 (a) (2), five counts of sexual assault in the first degree in violation of General Statutes (Rev. to 2013) § 53a-70 (a) (2), one count of attempt to commit sexual assault in the first degree in violation of § 53a-70 (a) (2) and General Statutes § 53a-49, one count of sexual assault in the fourth degree in violation of General Statutes (Rev. to 2013) § 53a-73a (a) (1) (A), one count of risk of injury to a child in violation of § 53-21 (a) (1), one count of conspiracy to commit risk of injury to a child in violation of § 53-21 (a) (2) and General Statutes § 53a-48, and one count of attempt to commit risk of injury to a child in violation of §§ 53-21 (a) (2) and 53a-49. The respondent was sentenced to a total effective term of twenty-nine years of incarceration, followed by sixteen years of special parole. See State v. Daniel W., 180 Conn.App. 76, 79, 84, 182 A.3d 665, cert. denied, 328 Conn. 929, 182 A.3d 638 (2018).

         The minor that the respondent was convicted of assaulting was J's younger sister, A, the children's aunt. At the time of the respondent's arrest, a criminal protective order was put in place preventing the respondent from contacting A ‘‘in any manner, including by written, electronic or telephone contact . . . .'' The order also barred the respondent from contacting A's ‘‘home, workplace or others with whom the contact would be likely to cause annoyance or alarm to [A].'' At the respondent's January, 2016 sentencing hearing, the court issued a standing criminal protective order to remain in effect until September 6, 2068. During the sentencing hearing, upon the request of the respondent's counsel for clarification of the scope of the order, the court explained that the standing protective order, which was identical to the one already in place, barred the respondent from having contact not only with A, but also with her immediate family, including her parents, the children's grandparents, but not the respondent's children themselves. Because the children lived with A in their grandparents' home, the protective order had the practical effect of prohibiting the respondent from contacting the children's home and the children's guardians. During the sentencing hearing, the respondent did not request any modification to the scope of the standing criminal protective order.

         On the day that J was arrested, the grandparents petitioned the Probate Court for the district of Ellington for immediate temporary custody of the children on the basis that both parents were now incarcerated. The court granted the petitions and, five months later, granted the grandparents' petitions for the removal of the parents and the appointment of the grandparents as the guardians of the children, to which both the respondent and J consented. Approximately one year after the grandparents were appointed guardians of the children, the petitioner filed the petitions to terminate the parental rights of both the respondent and J. The respondent indicated through counsel his intent to contest the termination, and, on that basis, the guardian ad litem for the children filed a motion pursuant to General Statutes § 45a-715 (g) to transfer the case from the Probate Court to the Superior Court, which the court granted. J subsequently consented to the termination of her parental rights, and the case proceeded against the respondent alone.

         The original petitions alleged that the children had been denied the care, guidance, or control necessary for their physical, educational, moral, or emotional well-being, by reason of acts of parental commission or omission. In an amendment to the petitions filed on November 16, 2016, the petitioner withdrew that allegation and instead alleged abandonment and the lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship as grounds for termination.

         Following a trial, the court denied the petitions. In its memorandum of decision, the trial court first turned to the question of whether the petitioner had proven that the respondent abandoned the children pursuant to General Statutes § 45a-717 (g) (2) (A). In concluding that she had not, the court relied on the actions undertaken by the respondent to maintain contact with the children. Prior to the respondent's incarceration, the court found that he provided for the children financially, participated in their daily activities and had hosted birthday parties for the children. The court evaluated the respondent's efforts to maintain contact with the children during his incarceration in light of the protective order, which greatly limited his ability to contact them. The court observed that, despite that obstacle, the respondent had made some efforts to maintain contact with the children. The court noted that the respondent had requested assistance from the Department of Children and Families (department) in facilitating visitation with the children[4] and, in 2014, participated in a program that sends Christmas gifts to children of incarcerated parents. The trial court also found that, in 2014, during a Probate Court proceeding, the respondent requested that the grandparents provide him with updates on the children. Relying on these facts, the court concluded that the petitioner had failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the respondent had abandoned the children.

         The court next turned to the petitioner's claim that there was no ongoing parent-child relationship pursuant to § 45a-717 (g) (2) (C). The court began its analysis by recognizing that § 45a-717 (g) (2) (C) requires a two part inquiry. Turning to the first part of the inquiry- whether the petitioner had established no ongoing parent-child relationship by clear and convincing evidence-the court cited to the same facts it had relied on to conclude that the petitioner had failed to prove abandonment, that is, the court looked to the respondent's conduct. Although the court had made findings regarding the children's negative feelings toward or lack of memory of the respondent, it did not consider the feelings or memories of the children in resolving the first part of the inquiry under § 45a-717 (g) (2) (C).

         In its analysis, the court cited to an Appellate Court decision, In re Carla C., 167 Conn.App. 248, 251, 143 A.3d 677 (2016), which held that a custodial parent or guardian who has ‘‘interfered [with a noncustodial parent's] visitation and other efforts'' cannot terminate the noncustodial parent's rights on the basis of an alleged lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship. The trial court found that the grandparents had interfered with the respondent's efforts to maintain a relationship with his children. In support of that finding, the court cited to the failure of the grandparents to provide updates to the respondent concerning the children. In reaching its finding of interference, the trial court also relied on evidence that the grandparents had not told the children the truth about why the respondent was incarcerated. Specifically, the grandparents initially had not provided the children with any explanation for the respondent's absence, and, when they eventually told the children that the respondent was incarcerated, rather than tell them that he had sexually assaulted their aunt, the grandparents told the children he was in prison for beating J.

         As a consequence of its finding that the grandparents had interfered with the respondent's efforts to maintain a relationship with the children, the trial court did not conclude that the petitioner was barred from relying on the ground of no ongoing parent-child relationship as a basis for termination. Instead, the trial court suggested that the combination of two of its findings-namely, that the grandparents had interfered and that the respondent had made efforts to maintain contact with the children-supported the conclusion that the petitioner had not proven by clear and convincing evidence a lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship.

         The court next turned to the second part of the inquiry under § 45a-717 (g) (2) (C)-whether the petitioner had proven by clear and convincing evidence that allowing the respondent additional time to reestablish the parent- child relationship would be detrimental to the best interests of the children. The court's entire discussion of this prong encompassed two sentences: ‘‘There was no evidence presented by the petitioner at trial that would support a claim that additional time to reestablish a relationship with the children would be detrimental. The statements of dislike by very young children with false information about their father does not establish by clear and convincing evidence that reestablishing a relationship would be detrimental.''

         The petitioner appealed from the trial court's judgments denying the petitions to the Appellate Court. That court concluded that the trial court had applied an incorrect legal test in denying the petitions. In so concluding, the court focused on inconsistencies that it had discerned in the trial court's memorandum of decision. See In re Jacob W., supra, 178 Conn.App. 198-99. The Appellate Court identified two inconsistencies in the trial court's analysis: (1) a conclusion that an ongoing parent-child relationship existed and simultaneously did not exist because the grandparents' ‘‘unreasonable interference inevitably prevented the respondent from maintaining an ongoing parent-child relationship''; id., 211; and (2) a finding ‘‘both that the grandparents' unreasonable conduct constituted interference and that there was no evidence of unreasonable interference by any person.'' Id., 215-16.

         I

         We first consider whether the Appellate Court properly concluded that the trial court applied an incorrect legal test to determine whether the petitioner had proven by clear and convincing evidence the lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship. Because that question presents a question of law, our review is plenary. See In re Egypt E., 327 Conn. 506, 525-26, 175 A.3d 21 (setting forth applicable standards of review for subordinate factual findings [clear error], ultimate conclusion that ground for termination has been proven [evidentiary sufficiency] and legal questions [plenary]), cert. denied sub nom. Morsy E. v. Commissioner, Dept. of Children & Families, U.S., 139 S.Ct. 88, 202 L.Ed.2d 27 (2018).

         Section 45a-717 (g) provides in relevant part: ‘‘At the adjourned hearing or at the initial hearing where no investigation and report has been requested, the court may approve a petition terminating the parental rights . . . if it finds, upon clear and convincing evidence, that (1) the termination is in the best interest of the child, and (2) . . . (C) there is no ongoing parent-child relationship which is defined as the relationship that ordinarily develops as a result of a parent having met on a continuing, day-to-day basis the physical, emotional, moral and educational needs of the child and to allow further time for the establishment or reestablishment of the parent-child relationship would be detrimental to the best interests of the child . . . .'' We have explained that the inquiry under § 45a-717 (g) (2) (C) is a two step process. First, the court must determine whether the petitioner has proven the lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship. Only if the court answers that question in the affirmative may it turn to the second part of the inquiry, namely, ‘‘whether allowance of further time for the establishment or reestablishment of the relationship would be contrary to the child's best interests.'' (Emphasis omitted.) In re Juvenile Appeal (Anonymous), 177 Conn. 648, 675-76, 420 A.2d 875 (1979); see id. (‘‘[t]he ‘best interests' standard . . . comes into play only if it has been determined that no ongoing parent-child relationship exists, in order to decide whether allowance of further time for the establishment or reestablishment of the relationship would be contrary to the child's best interests'' [emphasis altered]); see also In re Carla C., supra, 167 Conn.App. 265 (‘‘[t]he best interest standard . . . does not become relevant until after it has been determined that no parent-child relationship exists'' [emphasis added; internal quotation marks omitted]); In re Michael M., 29 Conn.App. 112, 128, 614 A.2d 832 (1992) (same); In re Juvenile Appeal (84-3), 1 Conn.App. 463, 480, 473 A.2d 795, cert. denied, 193 Conn. 802, 474 A.2d 1259 (1984) (same).

         In interpreting the parameters of § 45a-717 (g) (2) (C), we must be mindful of what is at stake. ‘‘[T]he termination of parental rights is defined, in [what is now General Statutes § 45a-707 (8)], as the complete severance by court order of the legal relationship, with all its rights and responsibilities, between the child and his parent . . . . It is, accordingly, a most serious and sensitive judicial action. . . . Although the severance of the parent-child relationship may be required under some circumstances, the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the interest of parents in their children is a fundamental constitutional right that undeniably warrants deference and, absent a powerful countervailing interest, protection. Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651, 92 S.Ct. 1208, 31 L.Ed.2d 551 (1972) . . . .'' (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) In re Valerie D., 223 Conn. 492, 514, 613 A.2d 748 (1992).

         Moreover, because the respondent is incarcerated, we emphasize that ‘‘the fact of incarceration, in and of itself, cannot be the basis for a termination of parental rights. . . . At the same time, a court properly may take into consideration the inevitable effects of incarceration on an individual's ability to assume his or her role as a parent. See, e.g., In re Katia M., 124 Conn.App. 650, 661, 6 A.3d 86 (parent's unavailability, due to incarceration, is an obstacle to reunification), cert. denied, 299 Conn. 920, 10 A.3d 1051 (2010); see also In re Gwynne P., 346 Ill.App.3d 584, 597-98, 805 N.E.2d 329 (2004) (parent's repeated incarceration may lead to diminished capacity to provide financial, physical, and emotional support for . . . child . . .), aff'd, 215 Ill.2d 340, 830 N.E.2d 508 (2005). Extended incarceration severely hinders the department's ability to offer services and the parent's ability to make and demonstrate the changes that would enable reunification of the family. . . . This is particularly the case when a parent has been incarcerated for much or all of his or her child's life and, as a result, the normal parent-child bond that develops from regular contact instead is weak or absent.'' (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) In re Elvin G., 310 Conn. 485, 514-15, 78 A.3d 797 (2013).

         The lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship is a ‘‘ ‘no fault' '' statutory ground for the termination of parental rights. In re Juvenile Appeal (Anonymous), supra, 177 Conn. 669. This court has explained that the ground of ‘‘ ‘no ongoing parent-child relationship' '' for the termination of parental rights contemplates ‘‘a situation in which, regardless of fault, a child either has never known his or her parents, so that no relationship has ever developed between them, or has definitively lost that relationship, so that despite its former existence it has now been completely displaced.'' Id., 670. The ultimate question is whether the child has ‘‘some present memories or feelings for the natural parent that are positive in nature.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) In re Jessica M., 217 Conn. 459, 469, 586 A.2d 597 (1991).

         In its interpretation of the language of § 45a-717 (g) (2) (C), this court has been careful to avoid placing ‘‘insurmountable burden[s]'' on noncustodial parents. Id., 467. Because of that concern, we have explicitly rejected a literal interpretation of the statute, which defines the relationship as one ‘‘that ordinarily develops as a result of a parent having met on a continuing, day-to-day basis the physical, emotional, moral and educational needs of the child . . . .'' General Statutes § 45a-717 (g) (2) (C). ‘‘[D]ay-to-day absence alone, '' we clarified, is insufficient to support a finding of no ongoing parent-child relationship. In re Jessica M., supra, 217 Conn. 470. We also have rejected the notion that termination may be predicated on the lack of a ‘‘meaningful relationship, '' explaining that the statute ‘‘requires that there be no relationship.'' (Emphasis added.) In re Juvenile Appeal (Anonymous), supra, 177 Conn. 675.

         We have emphasized that, as to noncustodial parents, ‘‘[t]he evidence regarding the nature of the [parent's] relationship with [his] child at the time of the termination hearing must be reviewed in the light of the circumstances under which visitation had been permitted.'' In re Jessica M., supra, 217 Conn. 473. For instance, in In re Jessica M., we concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prove a lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship between a noncustodial mother and her child. Id., 472-73. Although that conclusion was based primarily on the fact that the child had ‘‘present memories or feelings for her mother [and] that at least some aspects of [those] memories and feelings [were] positive''; id., 474-75; we also took into account the circumstances under which visitation had been permitted. Specifically, we considered it relevant that the child's legal guardians, who had petitioned for termination of the mother's parental rights, had placed restrictions on her ability to visit the child during the duration of their guardianship. Id., 472-73.

         We later applied these principles to conclude that, when the department engages in conduct that inevitably leads to a noncustodial parent's lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship, the department cannot rely on the lack of that relationship to terminate the noncustodial parent's rights. In re Valerie D., supra, 223 Conn. 531, 535. In other words, we did not hold that the consequence of such conduct was that the test for determining whether there was an ongoing parent-child relationship was altered. Instead, we held that, as a result of its conduct, the department was precluded from relying on that ground as a basis for termination. Id., 532. In In re Valerie D., the department was granted temporary custody of the child within days after she was born, primarily because the mother, who had used cocaine throughout her pregnancy, had injected herself with cocaine hours prior to delivery, as a result of which the child was born addicted to cocaine and suffered from withdrawal. Id., 499-504. Soon after it had obtained temporary custody, the department filed coterminous petitions for custody and termination of the parental rights of the mother. Id., 499-503. The amended petition for termination relied, inter alia, on the ground that there was no ongoing parent-child relationship. Id., 504. Asa result of the department's success in obtaining custody of the child, from the time that the department was granted temporary custody a few days after the child's birth to the date of the termination hearing three and one-half months later, the child remained in foster care. Id., 527. During that time, primarily due to the placement of the child in a foster home, the mother had been able to visit the child only eight times. Id., 528.

         Two factors led this court to conclude that, under the circumstances of that case, termination of the mother's parental rights could not be permitted on the basis that there was no ongoing parent-child relationship. Id., 532. First, the court observed that, at the time of the termination hearing, the child was not yet four months old. Id., 527. The court recognized that the usual test for an ongoing parent-child relationship is not appropriate when the child is ‘‘virtually a newborn infant whose present feelings can hardly be discerned with any reasonable degree of confidence.'' Id., 532. Under those circumstances, the court reasoned, it simply makes no sense to inquire as to whether an infant has some present memories or feelings for the natural parent that are positive in nature. Id. Instead, ‘‘the inquiry must focus, not on the feelings of the infant, but on the positive feelings of the natural parent.'' Id.

         Second, even assuming that the department had established that the mother lacked such positive feelings, the court concluded that principles of statutory construction precluded the department from gaining and maintaining ‘‘custody of a newborn infant pursuant to [General Statutes] § 46b-129 under circumstances . . . that will lead almost inevitably'' to termination on the basis of a lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship. Id., 532 n.34, 533. The statutory problem, the court explained, stemmed from the different standards governing custody and termination. Under the facts of the case, ‘‘a factual predicate for custody, established by the lesser standard of a preponderance of the evidence, led inexorably, for all practical purposes, to the factual predicate for termination required to be established by the higher standard of clear and convincing evidence.'' Id., 533-34. The problem highlighted by the court in In re Valerie D. was that it was the very party who petitioned to terminate the mother's parental rights-the department-whose conduct inevitably had led to the lack of a parent-child relationship. That is, by filing the petitions coterminously in the case of a child who was so young, the department virtually ensured that, upon the grant of custody at the lower standard of proof, and in the absence of heroic efforts by the mother or significant additional services provided by the department, there would be no parent-child bond by the time of the termination hearing.

         This court has not had the opportunity to consider whether the principle we relied on in In re Valerie D. would apply to a petitioner who is a private party. The Appellate Court, however, has extended the holding of In re Valerie D. to apply to a custodial parent whose conduct inevitably led to the noncustodial parent's lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship. In In re Carla C., supra, 167 Conn.App. 251, the court concluded that, under those circumstances, the petitioner was precluded from relying on the lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship as a basis for termination. Specifically, the court held that ‘‘a parent whose conduct inevitably has led to the [other parent's] lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship may not terminate parental rights on this ground.'' Id., 262. The petitioner in that case, the mother and custodial parent of the child, used her status as the custodial parent and engaged in conduct that interfered in a variety of ways with the ability of the father, who was incarcerated, to maintain a relationship with the child. The mother's interference with the father's efforts to maintain contact with the child began after she ‘‘met and began a relationship with [Steve], whom she described as a ‘real man' and ‘[the] father figure that [Carla] deserves.' '' Id., 252. The mother's interfering conduct included the following. She obtained an order from the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, where the father was incarcerated, directing him to cease all oral and written communication with her and the child, either directly or through a third party, or face disciplinary action. Id., 253. She also threw away cards and letters that the father had sent to the child, without first showing them to the child. Id. She later successfully moved to suspend the father's visitation, on the basis that the existing arrangement, which relied on the paternal grandmother to facilitate visitation, had proven unworkable. Id., 255-56. Under those circumstances, the Appellate Court concluded, the mother was precluded from relying on the lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship as a ground for termination of the father's parental rights because it was her conduct that had inevitably led to the lack of that relationship. Id., 262.

         We agree with the Appellate Court that the reasoning of In re Valerie D., supra, 223 Conn. 492, should extend to individuals who are custodial parents or guardians. We observe that, in In re Carla C., supra, 167 Conn.App. 280, the Appellate Court accurately characterized the mother's conduct as ‘‘interference.'' The concept of ‘‘interference'' fit particularly well with the facts of that case. We consider it unnecessary, however, as a general rule, to limit the exception that we set forth in In re Valerie D. to instances in which the actions of a custodial parent or guardian necessarily constitute ‘‘interference.'' That term carries with it the connotation that the conduct at issue was undertaken with the express purpose of preventing the noncustodial parent from having access to the child. The question is not whether a petitioner-the department or a private party- intends to interfere with the noncustodial parent's visitation or other efforts to maintain a relationship with the child. For example, there was no suggestion in In re Valerie D., supra, 223 Conn. 492, that the department filed coterminous petitions with the express purpose of preventing the mother from having access to her child, nor did the department's intent play any part in our analysis. It was sufficient that the department's conduct inevitably led to the lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship. Id., 533. Our inquiry properly focuses not on the petitioner's intent in engaging in the conduct at issue, but on the consequences of that conduct. In other words, the question is whether the petitioner engaged in conduct that inevitably led to a noncustodial parent's lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship. If the answer to that question is yes, the petitioner will be precluded from relying on the ground of ‘‘no ongoing parent-child relationship'' as a basis for termination regardless of the petitioner's intent-or not-to interfere.

         In summary, the following is the proper legal test to apply when a petitioner seeks to terminate a parent's rights on the basis of no ongoing parent-child relationship pursuant to § 45a-717 (g) (2) (C). We reiterate that the inquiry is a two step process. In the first step, a petitioner must prove the lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship by clear and convincing evidence. In other words, the petitioner must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the child has no present memories or feelings for the natural parent that are positive in nature. If the petitioner is unable to prove a lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship by clear and convincing evidence, the petition must be denied and there is no need to proceed to the second step of the inquiry. If, and only if, the petitioner has proven a lack of an ongoing parent-child relationship, does the inquiry proceed to the second step, whereby the ...


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