In re Annessa J.

Decision Date20 June 2022
Docket NumberSC 20614
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

Albert J. Oneto IV, assigned counsel, for the appellant-cross appellee (respondent mother).

Evan O'Roark, assistant attorney general, with whom, on the brief, were William Tong, attorney general, Clare Kindall, solicitor general, and Nisa Khan, assistant attorney general, for the appellee-cross appellant (petitioner).

Joshua Michtom, assistant public defender, for the cross appellee (respondent father).

Robinson, C. J., and McDonald, D'Auria, Mullins, Kahn, Ecker and Keller, Js.


The Appellate Court reversed the trial court's denial of the respondent parents' motions for posttermination visitation on the ground that the trial court applied an incorrect legal standard when it considered those motions. See In re Annessa J. , 206 Conn. App. 572, 575–76, 260 A.3d 1253 (2021). The Appellate Court, however, did affirm the trial court's judgment terminating the respondents' parental rights, rejecting the respondent mother's claims relating to the virtual nature of the termination of parental rights trial. See id., at 575, 260 A.3d 1253. From these determinations, we are presented with a certified appeal and cross appeal.

In her appeal, the respondent mother, Valerie H., claims that the Appellate Court improperly rejected her unpreserved claim that the trial court had violated her rights under article fifth, § 1, and article first, § 10, of the Connecticut constitution by conducting the termination of parental rights trial virtually, via Microsoft Teams,1 rather than in person. She also claims that the Appellate Court incorrectly determined that the record was inadequate to review her unpreserved claim that she was denied her right to physically confront the witnesses against her at the virtual trial, in violation of the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment to the United States constitution. In the cross appeal, the petitioner, the Commissioner of Children and Families, claims that the Appellate Court improperly expanded the standard for deciding motions for posttermination visitation and improperly reversed the trial court's rulings on those motions for failing to comply with that new standard.2

The record and the Appellate Court's decision set forth the pertinent facts and procedural history; see id., at 576–80, 260 A.3d 1253 ; which we summarize in relevant part. Valerie and the respondent father, Anthony J., first became involved with the Department of Children and Families in 2009, when their daughter, Annessa J., was three years old. The department removed Annessa from the care of her parents because it was concerned about intimate partner violence between the respondents and because they had provided inadequate supervision of Annessa. The trial court subsequently adjudicated Annessa neglected and ordered that she be committed to the care and custody of the petitioner. Thereafter, in 2010, the department reunified Annessa with the respondents. At that time, the respondents also reunited and began living together with Annessa.

In November, 2017, the department received a report alleging that Anthony had sexually abused Annessa and that Valerie had physically neglected her. Valerie recounted that she was unaware of the sexual abuse until July, 2017, when Anthony admitted to her that "he had touched Annessa's genitals over her underpants in order to teach her a lesson." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., at 577, 260 A.3d 1253. As a result, Valerie asked Anthony to leave the apartment. After the department was informed about the alleged sexual assault, it made efforts to have Valerie place Annessa in therapy. Valerie, however, would not commit to doing so.

Several weeks after leaving Valerie's apartment, Anthony returned and kicked in the door to the apartment, for which he was arrested. Thereafter, one of several protective orders was issued against Anthony, and he subsequently pleaded guilty to numerous charges as a result of this arrest. He received a sentence of one year of incarceration, execution suspended, and two years of probation.

Annessa later reported that Valerie would leave her alone for days at a time, that she would not know where Valerie was during those times, and that the apartment had no heat or electricity. During a forensic interview in December, 2017, Annessa also confirmed that Anthony had "touched her ‘bikini area’ over her underwear." Id.

Throughout the course of the department's investigation, Valerie refused to cooperate with the department to provide services for Annessa. As a result, in January, 2018, the petitioner filed a petition alleging that Annessa had been neglected. After invoking a ninety-six hour administrative hold on Annessa, the petitioner filed an ex parte motion for an order of temporary custody. The trial court issued the order of temporary custody, and it was thereafter sustained. In July, 2018, Annessa was adjudicated neglected and committed to the custody of the petitioner. Annessa was placed in foster care with the woman who had been Valerie's foster mother years earlier. Annessa has bonded with the foster mother and has expressed a desire to remain in the custody of the foster mother.

The respondents "were given specific steps to facilitate reunification with Annessa, including addressing mental health issues, parenting deficiencies, and intimate partner violence ...." Id., at 578, 260 A.3d 1253. Anthony was also ordered to address the sexual abuse of Annessa through counseling. Valerie failed to cooperate with the department throughout its investigation. For his part, Anthony missed several administrative case review appointments but otherwise participated in counseling. He was not, however, initially cooperative about discussing the sexual abuse of Annessa with his therapist.

Given the respondents' lack of progress, in November, 2019, the petitioner filed a petition seeking to terminate their parental rights as to Annessa. Trial on the termination petition was originally scheduled for March, 2020, but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the temporary suspension of most trials. In light of the pandemic, a virtual trial was ultimately held in September and October, 2020, via Microsoft Teams. During the trial, the respondents both filed motions asking that, in the event the trial court terminated their parental rights, the court order visitation to continue with Annessa posttermination.

In its memorandum of decision, the trial court found that the department had made reasonable efforts to reunify each of the respondents with Annessa and that neither parent was able or willing to benefit from reunification efforts. The court also determined that such efforts at reunification were no longer appropriate. In accordance with General Statutes § 17a-112 (j) (3) (B), the court also found that the petitioner had "proven by clear and convincing evidence the ‘failure to rehabilitate’ ground for termination of the respondents' parental rights." Id., at 579, 260 A.3d 1253. The court also considered the seven statutory factors enumerated in § 17a-112 (k) and concluded that termination of the parental rights of both respondents was in Annessa's best interest.

In its memorandum of decision, the trial court also considered the respondents' motions for posttermination visitation. The court found that "neither [Valerie] nor [Anthony] ... met their burden [of] prov[ing] [that] posttermination visitation for such parent is necessary or appropriate to secure the welfare, protection, proper care and suitable support of [Annessa]." The court noted that Anthony and Annessa had a good visiting relationship but found that posttermination visitation with Valerie or Anthony was "not required for [Annessa's] well-being, welfare, protection, proper care or suitable support." Accordingly, the court denied both of the respondents' motions.

Thereafter, the respondents separately appealed to the Appellate Court. Valerie raised several unpreserved claims of error pursuant to State v. Golding , 213 Conn. 233, 239–40, 567 A.2d 823 (1989), as modified by In re Yasiel R ., 317 Conn. 773, 781, 120 A.3d 1188 (2015). Specifically, she claimed, among other things, that the trial court "(1) violated her right to a ‘public civil trial at common law’ by conducting proceedings over the Microsoft Teams platform, rather than in court and in person, in violation of article fifth, § 1, and article first, § 10, of the Connecticut constitution, [and] (2) violated her right to due process of law by precluding her from confronting witnesses in court and in person when it conducted proceedings over the Microsoft Teams platform ...."3 (Footnote omitted.) In re Annessa J. , supra, 206 Conn. App. at 575, 260 A.3d 1253. Additionally, both respondents argued that the trial court applied an incorrect legal standard when it considered their motions for posttermination visitation with Annessa. Id., at 575–76, 260 A.3d 1253.

The Appellate Court rejected each of Valerie's constitutional claims. See id., at 575, 260 A.3d 1253. The court explained that Valerie failed to establish that a party possesses a fundamental right under the Connecticut constitution to an in-court, in person termination of parental rights trial, rather than a trial conducted over a virtual platform, such as Microsoft Teams. Id., at 585, 260 A.3d 1253. Accordingly, the court concluded that Valerie's state constitutional claim was not reviewable because it failed under the second prong of Golding . Id. The Appellate Court also concluded that, because Valerie did not ask the trial court to hold an evidentiary hearing on the need for a virtual trial, the record was inadequate to review Valerie's unpreserved federal due process claim. Id., at 587, 260 A.3d 1253. The Appellate Court, however, agreed with the respondents that the trial court had "failed to consider the appropriate standard...

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    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • June 20, 2022
    ...and McDonald, D'Auria, Mullins, Kahn, Ecker and Keller, Js. McDONALD, J. This appeal is one of the companion cases to In re Annessa J. , 343 Conn. 642, ––– A.3d –––– (2022), which we also decide today. The respondent mother, Jacqueline H., appeals from the decision of the trial court, which......
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