In re Alissa N., (AC 18596)

Decision Date28 December 1999
Docket Number(AC 18596)
Citation742 A.2d 415,56 Conn. App. 203
CourtConnecticut Court of Appeals
PartiesIN RE ALISSA N.

Lavery, Spear and Daly, JS. William A. Snider, for the appellant (petitioner).

Sam Christodlous, for the appellee (respondent).

Opinion

LAVERY, J.

The petitioner grandmother appeals from the judgment of the trial court denying her petition to terminate the respondent mother's parental rights. The petitioner claims on appeal that the trial court improperly (1) denied her petition to terminate the respondent's parental rights and (2) relied on the opinion of counsel serving as guardian of the child's estate in determining the child's best interest pursuant to General Statutes § 45a-717 (g). We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

On April 8, 1996, the petitioner brought an application for termination of the parental rights of the mother and the father of Alissa N. in the Newington Probate Court. On that same day, the petitioner also moved for immediate temporary custody and guardianship pending a hearing on the merits, which was granted by the Probate Court. The respondent mother did not contest the temporary orders, but did seek visitation. After a hearing, the Probate Court on February 24, 1997, terminated the father's parental rights and on June 10, 1997, terminated the mother's parental rights.2 The respondent mother appealed from that decision to the Superior Court. After a trial de novo, the court granted the petitioner guardianship, denied the petition to terminate the mother's parental rights and granted limited visitation rights to the mother. The petitioner appealed to this court.

The trial court found the following facts relevant to this appeal. Alissa was born on June 10, 1985, the product of a brief and abusive relationship between the respondent and Alissa's father. Alissa is a Down's syndrome child who also suffers from Eisenmenger syndrome, a condition that significantly reduces her life expectancy. Alissa was born with a heart defect—in layman's terms a hole in her heart—which causes pulmonary hypertension and a complex of symptoms such as iron deficiency, risk of stroke, bone pain, pain in the arms and debilitating headaches. Alissa's disabilities require constant care and supervision.

When Alissa was born, the respondent was eighteen years old. Although the respondent was the primary caretaker for the first six months of Alissa's life, she was so overwhelmed by her situation and that of Alissa that she had difficulty maintaining the high level of care necessary to meet her daughter's needs. The respondent was also interested in dating and continuing her life as an adolescent. As a result, over the first year of Alissa's life, her grandmother, the petitioner, assumed the dayto-day care and responsibility for Alissa's medical needs.

For approximately ten years, that arrangement continued.3 The petitioner had to make day care arrangemants during Alissa's infancy because the respondent could not be trusted to care for her. The petitioner also devoted her life to Alissa's educational and medical care needs.4 The petitioner, not the respondent, provided for Alissa financially.

During most of that period, the three lived in the same apartment. The respondent participated in Alissa's care only tangentially, more as an older sister might, rather than a mother. She would watch Alissa from time to time, but did not contribute to daily care.

In 1995, family circumstances changed. The respondent filed a medical malpractice lawsuit on Alissa's behalf regarding Alissa's condition, which promised a substantial monetary settlement. The relationship between the petitioner and the respondent deteriorated. In April, 1995, the respondent moved out of the shared apartment, and Alissa remained in the petitioner's care. The respondent did not visit or otherwise significantly participate in Alissa's life.

The relationship deteriorated further when the petitioner filed an application for temporary guardianship and termination of parental rights. The respondent did not contest the guardianship order in favor of the petitioner, apparently hoping that this disagreement, like others previously, would pass and she would be able to see Alissa. Their relationship did not improve and the respondent has not seen Alissa since November, 1995, when the petitioner stopped working at the bus company where the respondent continues to be employed.

Karen Brinkman, a department of children and families social worker, prepared the mandated study for the court and testified. She stated that no ongoing parent-child relationship exists between the respondent and her daughter. She found that the respondent was not, in December, 1996, in a position to make a home for her child. She recommended termination of the respondent's parental rights and adoption of Alissa by the petitioner.

I

"The standard for review on appeal [in a termination of parental rights case] is whether the challenged findings are clearly erroneous.... On appeal, our function is to determine whether the trial court's conclusion was legally correct and factually supported.... We do not examine the record to determine whether the trier of fact could have reached a conclusion other than the one reached ... nor do we retry the case or pass upon the credibility of the witnesses.... Rather, on review by this court every reasonable presumption is made in favor of the trial court's ruling." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) In re Roshawn R., 51 Conn. App. 44, 51, 720 A.2d 1112 (1998).

A

The petitioner's first claim is that the trial court improperly denied the petition to terminate the respondent's parental rights when it concluded that it was not in Alissa's best interest to do so. The petitioner contends that the court's conclusions are not factually supported and are an improper application of the law. We disagree.

Nonconsensual termination proceedings involve a two step process: an adjudicatory phase and a dispositional phase. General Statutes § 45a-717 (g). "In the adjudicatory phase, the trial court determines whether one of the statutory grounds for termination of parental rights exists by clear and convincing evidence." In re Tabitha P., 39 Conn. App. 353, 360, 664 A.2d 1168 (1995). Examples of such statutory grounds are abandonment of the child by the parent, denial of care, guidance and control necessary for the child's well-being or no ongoing parent-child relationship. In re Bruce R., 234 Conn. 194, 204, 662 A.2d 107 (1995). "If the trial court determines that a statutory ground for termination exists, it proceeds to the dispositional phase. In the dispositional phase, the trial court determines whether the termination of parental rights is in the best interests of the child. In re Maximina V., 44 Conn. App. 80, 82-83, 686 A.2d 1005 (1997). In re Drew R., 47 Conn. App. 124, 127, 702 A.2d 647 (1997)." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) In re Lauren R., 49 Conn. App. 763, 768, 715 A.2d 822 (1998). The dispositional phase, like its adjudicatory cousin, also must be supported on the basis of clear and convincing evidence. In re Bruce R., supra, 204.

The petitioner focuses her challenge on the dispositional phase, which she invites us to interpret as permitting the denial of termination only when a "compelling reason [exists] to keep the parent in the child's life." The petitioner also posits that the court may deny termination of parental rights at the dispositional phase only if it is done with the purpose of encouraging no less than a full parental relationship.

Neither contention finds support in the law. "The trial court is vested with broad discretion in determining what is in the child's best interests. Presutti v. Presutti, 181 Conn. 622, 627, 436 A.2d 299 (1980); Ridgeway v. Ridgeway, 180 Conn. 533, 541, 429 A.2d 801 (1980)." Schult v. Schult, 241 Conn. 767, 777-78, 699 A.2d 134 (1997). Conducting a best interest analysis is not a narrow concept restricted to a compelling reason or to fully reuniting the parent with the child. Rather, it is "purposefully broad to enable the trial court to exercise its discretion based upon a host of considerations." In re Bruce R., supra, 234 Conn. 206. Indeed, "General Statutes § 45a-706 expressly provides that § 45a-717 shall be liberally construed in the best interests of any child for whom a petition has been filed .... See Guille v. Guille, 196 Conn. 260, 266, 492 A.2d 175 (1985)...." (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) In re Bruce R., supra, 206.5

Not only is the dispositional phase free from the constraints the petitioner asks us to place upon it, but explicit guidelines already exist for a trial court to follow. General Statutes § 45a-717 (h). "In the dispositional phase of a nonconsensual case, when the focus is on the best interest of the child, General Statutes § 45a-717 (h) requires the trial court to consider and make written findings on certain specified criteria. Among these criteria, the trial court must consider whether the economic circumstances of the parent have prevented [that parent] from maintaining a meaningful relationship with the child." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) In re Bruce R., supra, 234 Conn. 204-205. These factors, combined with the broad concept of the best interest of the child, establish the proper factors to be considered in the dispositional phase of a nonconsensual parental termination proceeding. Accordingly, we reject the petitioner's restrictive view of the dispositional phase and affirm the trial court on that issue.

B

The petitioner also questions the factual grounds on which the trial court reached its conclusions. The petitioner challenges the court's conclusions that (1) the child's need for permanency does not require termination of parental rights, (2) it is appropriate for the respondent to remain in Alissa's life, (3) it is not in the best...

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