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In re Yolanda V.

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

January 13, 2020

IN RE YOLANDA V. ET AL.[*]

          Argued October 17, 2019

         Procedural History

         Petitions by the Commissioner of Children and Families to terminate the respondents' parental rights with respect to their minor children, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Hartford, Juvenile Matters, where the respondent father was defaulted for failure to appear; thereafter, the matters were tried to the court, C. Taylor, J.; judgments terminating the respondents' parental rights, from which the respondent mother appealed to this court. Affirmed.

          Joshua Michtom, assistant public defender, for the appellant (respondent mother).

          Rosemarie T. Weber, assistant attorney general, with whom, on the brief, were William Tong, attorney general, and Benjamin Zivyon, assistant attorney general, for the appellee (petitioner).

          Stein M. Helmrich, for the minor children.

          DiPentima, C. J., and Elgo and Harper, Js.

          OPINION

          ELGO, J.

         The respondent mother appeals from the judgments of the trial court terminating her parental rights as to Yolanda V., Jennessy V., and Hailey V., her minor children.[1] She contends that the court improperly concluded that (1) she failed to achieve the requisite degree of personal rehabilitation required by General Statutes § 17a-112, and (2) termination of her parental rights was in the best interests of the children.[2] We affirm the judgments of the trial court.

         The following facts, which the trial court found by clear and convincing evidence, [3] are relevant to this appeal. The respondent is a convicted felon and drug trafficker who has a history of substance abuse, domestic violence, and mental health issues. She has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, mood disorder, and bipolar disorder.

         As the court noted in its memorandum of decision, the Department of Children and Families (department) ‘‘has been involved with [the respondent and her family] since 2002, due to issues of domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health, parenting issues, physical neglect, and physical abuse.'' In 2002, the respondent's two older children, Malaysha R. and Damion B., were removed from her care following her arrest on drug related charges and subsequent incarceration. Their guardianship ultimately was transferred to a relative, and efforts to reunify them with the respondent were unsuccessful.

         Yolanda was born in 2006, and was twelve years old at the time of trial. She has ‘‘significant special needs, '' having been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Jennessy was eleven years old at the time of trial and suffers from ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder, and multiple learning disorders. Hailey was ten years old at the time of trial and has been diagnosed with ADHD, multiple learning disorders, and pica.[4]

         On January 25, 2010, Hailey sustained a cut to her forehead. The department received a report from emergency medical technicians who responded to a 911 call, who ‘‘did not feel that the coffee table, that [the respondent] reported the child had hit, had sharp enough edges to inflict such injury.'' Although a subsequent investigation concluded that there was insufficient evidence to substantiate the allegations of physical abuse, the case remained open and ongoing services continued.

         On May 24, 2010, the department received a report from a teacher concerned by red sores on Yolanda's hands because Yolanda ‘‘had made statements accusing [the respondent of] hitting her.'' The department ultimately could not substantiate those allegations.

         On February 16, 2011, the department received a report of emotional neglect stemming from a physical and verbal altercation between the respondent and the father, which later was substantiated. As the court recounted in its memorandum of decision: ‘‘The caller stated that police went to the home and learned that [the respondent] and [the father] had a physical and verbal altercation. According to the caller, this occurred quite often. The caller stated that there were holes all over the walls and the caller was unsure if they were from both parties. There was spaghetti splattered over the wall. There were numerous items broken in the home from past fights which were never reported. [The father] had injuries. According to the caller, both parties were hitting each other. However, [the respondent] did not have any visible injuries. The children were present but not injured. The caller stated that the children were ‘scared out of their minds.' The caller stated that neighbors heard the children screaming. The two older children told the caller that ‘mommy and daddy fight all the time.' Both parents were arrested. [The respondent] was charged with assault in the third degree, disorderly conduct, and interfering. [The father] was charged with disorderly conduct and interfering. Both parties remained in police custody. The children remained at the home with a relative. The allegations were substantiated and the case was transferred to ongoing services. The children entered care at this time.''[5]

         The minor children thereafter were adjudicated neglected and committed to the custody of the petitioner, the Commissioner of Children and Families, on November 10, 2011. At that time, the court issued specific steps for both the respondent and the father. Following the implementation of services by the department, the court returned custody of the children to the respondent on September 18, 2012, approximately one and one-half years after the neglect petitions had been filed.

         The department nevertheless continued to receive reports concerning the respondent and her family. As the court found: ‘‘On June 23, 2014, [the department] received a report from [the Community Health Center], alleging reported physical neglect of the children by [the respondent]. . . . The caller, who had done an intake, expressed concerns regarding [the respondent's] substance abuse issues. [The respondent] tested positive for phencyclidine (PCP), [6] marijuana, and cocaine. The caller confronted [the respondent] with the results [and the respondent] did not deny using illicit substances . . . .

         ‘‘[In-Home Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Services][7] had been working with the family since September, 2015. . . . The caller indicated that [that provider] had difficulty in reaching [the respondent] for six weeks and had difficulty in meeting with the family to provide necessary clinical services. The program was supposed to meet with Hailey three times per week, but [the respondent] had failed to make her available for at least three weeks. . . .

         ‘‘On March 4, 2016, [the department] received a report from [the children's elementary school] alleging physical neglect of Yolanda, Jennessy, and Hailey by [the respondent]. The caller reported that the children had chronic lice . . . . After [the department] investigated, the lice issue with the children was resolved and the case was submitted for closure with the children engaged in services at [the Village for Families and Children] and [Wheeler Center] Care Coordination.

         ‘‘On May 10, 2016, [the department] received a report from [the Village for Families and Children] stating that the family appeared that evening for their medication management appointment. [The respondent] reported that her [former boyfriend] broke into the home and strangled Yolanda the night before. None of the children awoke [the respondent]. [The respondent] learned of this right before the appointment that night. Yolanda told [the respondent] that [the former boyfriend] ‘choked' her. Jennessy told [the respondent that] she heard her sister screaming and saw the man choking her sister. Jennessy also reported she heard glass breaking. [The respondent's] car window was in fact broken. [The respondent] did not report this to police. The caller indicated that he/she encouraged [the respondent] to call the police. The children stated they did not go to [the respondent] because they were scared and [she was] sleeping. The allegations of physical neglect regarding Yolanda, Jennessy, and Hailey were substantiated against [the respondent] due to circumstances injurious to the children's well-being.

         ‘‘[The department] concluded that [the respondent] was actively using PCP and marijuana while caring for her children. She presented with erratic thoughts and paranoia, which appeared to be a direct result of her PCP usage and unaddressed mental health. The children did not appear to be aware of [the respondent's] substance abuse, however, her usage and unaddressed mental health impacted her ability to parent and protect the children appropriately. The allegation of emotional neglect was substantiated on behalf of the children as the children reported being scared of burglaries to their home. [The respondent's] erratic and paranoid behavior created an emotional impact on the children, as they became fearful to reside in their home and were noted to have difficulty sleeping. The case was transferred for ongoing services. [The respondent] continued to work with [Wheeler Center] to address her substance abuse and mental health, as well as the children's mental health services at [the Village for Families and Children]. . . . [Intensive Family Preservation] services were put in place to assist [the respondent] . . . in improving and strengthening family functioning.'' (Footnotes added.)

         On October 19, 2017, the respondent attempted to commit suicide. She was transported by ambulance to the hospital with Yolanda at her side. Hospital officials contacted the department that day to report allegations of physical neglect of the minor children, which the department later substantiated.

         The petitioner initiated a ninety-six hour hold on the minor children on October 20, 2017, and the trial court issued an order of temporary custody days later.[8] The department thereafter filed a neglect petition on behalf of the minor children, alleging, inter alia, that they were being denied proper care and attention and that they were being permitted to live under conditions injurious to their well-being. On January 25, 2018, the respondent appeared in court and entered a plea of nolo contendere to the injurious conditions allegation. As a result, the minor children were adjudicated neglected and committed to the custody of the petitioner. At that time, the court issued specific steps which the respondent signed.[9] The court also ordered the respondent to submit to a hair test. All three segments of that test later came back positive for PCP.

         On August 13, 2018, the petitioner filed petitions to terminate the respondent's parental rights predicated on her failure to achieve sufficient rehabilitation pursuant to § 17a-112 (j) (3) (B) (i).[10] In response, the respondent denied the substance of those allegations.

         A two day trial on the termination petitions was held in January, 2019, at which the parties submitted documentary and testimonial evidence. On March 18, 2019, the court issued its memorandum of decision, in which the court granted the petitions to terminate the respondent's parental rights. In so doing, the court made extensive findings of fact and concluded that the petitioner had established that the adjudicatory ground for termination existed and that termination was in the best interests of the minor children. From those judgments, the respondent now appeals.

         I

         The respondent first claims that there was insufficient evidence for the trial court to find by clear and convincing evidence that she had failed to achieve the degree of personal rehabilitation required by § 17a-112. More specifically, the respondent argues that, although she ‘‘was not fully compliant with all specific steps, her noncompliance occurred largely at the beginning of the case, and was followed ...


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