In re Gabriella A.

Decision Date02 December 2015
Docket NumberNo. 19435.,19435.
Citation127 A.3d 948,319 Conn. 775
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
Parties In re GABRIELLA A.

Dana M. Hrelic, with whom was Brendon P. Levesque, Hartford, for the appellant (respondent mother).

John E. Tucker, assistant attorney general, with whom, on the brief, were George Jepsen, attorney general, and Benjamin Zivyon and Patricia E. Naktenis, assistant attorneys general, for the appellee (petitioner).

ROGERS, C.J., and PALMER, ZARELLA, EVELEIGH, McDONALD, ESPINOSA and ROBINSON, Js.

ESPINOSA, J.

In this certified appeal,1 the respondent mother, Tanesha E., claims that the Appellate Court improperly affirmed the judgment of the trial court terminating her parental rights and denying her motion to revoke commitment as to her minor child, Gabriella A. The respondent claims that the Appellate Court improperly concluded that the trial court properly determined pursuant to General Statutes § 17a–112 (j)2 that: (1) the petitioner, the Commissioner of Children and Families,3 had made reasonable efforts to reunify the respondent with Gabriella; and (2) the respondent was unable to benefit from reunification services. In re Gabriella A., 154 Conn.App. 177, 186, 191, 104 A.3d 805 (2014). Because we conclude that there was sufficient evidence to support the trial court's finding that the petitioner had proved by clear and convincing evidence that the respondent was unable to benefit from reunification services, we affirm the judgment of the Appellate Court.4

The record reveals the following procedural history and facts, some of which were undisputed, and others that were found by the trial court to be proved by clear and convincing evidence. The respondent, a citizen of Jamaica, has seven children, five of whom live in Jamaica with their father, Marshall A. The other two children, who currently reside in Connecticut, are Gabriella, who is the subject of this appeal, and Erica M., to whom the respondent has had her parental rights terminated during the course of the proceedings at issue in this appeal. See footnote 5 of this opinion. While visiting the United States to attend a memorial service for her brother, the respondent gave birth to Gabriella at a Connecticut hospital on February 28, 2011. The petitioner's involvement with the family began shortly thereafter, when the hospital reported to the petitioner that the respondent lacked provisions for the child. On or about April 9, 2011, the respondent returned to Jamaica and left six week old Gabriella, as well as her ten year old half sister, Erica, in the Connecticut home of Nicolette R. Although the record is unclear as to the precise nature of Nicolette's relationship to the respondent, Gabriella and Erica, they are not biological relatives.

More than four months later, on August 25, 2011, a social worker for the Department of Children and Families (department) who had been assigned to the case reported to the petitioner that she had observed a large number of children's birth certificates in Nicolette's home, and that the adults who lived there had been unable to explain the whereabouts of the children named on the certificates. On that same day, the social worker removed Gabriella, Erica and a third child, Samantha R., from the home, under circumstances that the trial court described as "relatively horrific." Specifically, the social worker testified that while at the home she recovered a cell phone with video that depicted Erica digitally penetrating the infant Gabriella, and other footage showing Erica removing Gabriella from her high chair and "thrash[ing] her around" aggressively in the air. The video also depicted Erica and Samantha engaging in sexualized behaviors with each other.

Erica has a history of sexual abuse in Jamaica by persons other than the respondent, both while Erica was in the respondent's care and also while Erica was placed in orphanages after being temporarily removed from the respondent's custody by Jamaican authorities. Although the facts relating specifically to Erica are not directly relevant to the termination of the respondent's rights with respect to Gabriella, Erica's sexual abuse provides context for the nature of services later provided to the respondent and are referenced only for that purpose.

On August 29, 2011, the court granted the petitioner's ex parte motion for an order of temporary custody filed on behalf of Erica and Gabriella, finding that the children were in immediate physical danger from their surroundings and continuation in the home was contrary to their welfare.5 On the same day, the petitioner filed a neglect petition. After she learned that the children had been removed from Nicolette's home by the petitioner, the respondent returned to the United States in September, 2011. The order of temporary custody was subsequently sustained by agreement on November 18, 2011, at which time the court adjudicated Gabriella neglected and committed her to the care and custody of the petitioner. Gabriella has been in her current, preadoptive foster placement since December, 2011.

At the time that Gabriella was adjudicated neglected, the court ordered specific steps for the respondent, including requiring that she take part in counseling and make progress toward the identified treatment goals of meeting Gabriella's need for safety and developing age appropriate parenting techniques. The respondent was also required to obtain adequate housing and a legal income. The petitioner was ordered to refer the respondent to appropriate services and to monitor the respondent's progress and compliance with the specific steps. The petitioner submitted a permanency plan with the goal of the reunification of Gabriella with the respondent, which was approved by the court on July 3, 2012.

After ascertaining that the respondent did not have substance abuse issues, in furtherance of the permanency plan, the petitioner referred her to various service providers, whose opinions as to the respondent's progress are discussed in detail later in this opinion. Radiance Innovative Services (Radiance) provided the respondent with individual therapy, a parenting education class entitled "Common Sense Parenting," and case management services to assist her in dealing with her immigration, housing and employment issues. In addition, the Greater Hartford Children's Advocacy Center at Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center provided a second parenting education class, entitled, "Child Sexual Abuse Education for Non–Offending Caregivers," to assist the respondent in parenting a child who has been sexually abused. When the department's contract with Radiance expired in December, 2012, the respondent had attended only fourteen of twenty-four individual counseling sessions. Following the respondent's discharge from Radiance, the petitioner referred the respondent to a different service provider for individual therapy, Beverly Coker, a licensed clinical social worker with New Beginnings Family Center, LLC. The petitioner also facilitated supervised visitation for the respondent with Gabriella.

During the course of the petitioner's provision of reunification services to her, the respondent revealed that she herself had suffered serious trauma, both as a child, including sexual abuse and abandonment, and as an adult, including the temporary removal of her children from her custody by Jamaican authorities. Specifically, the respondent claimed that as a child she had been exposed to domestic violence between her mother and her stepfather, and that her stepfather had tried to sexually assault her. The respondent also reported that when she told her mother of the attempted sexual assault, her mother sent her away from their home because her mother did not believe her. In her adult life, the removal of her six children by the Child Development Agency of Jamaica was particularly traumatic, as she was also arrested and subsequently sentenced to two years of probation for abandonment of the children in connection with the incident that prompted their removal.

On February 6, 2013, the respondent filed a motion to revoke commitment, asserting that she had complied with the specific steps ordered by the court. Shortly thereafter, on March 14, 2013, the petitioner petitioned pursuant to § 17a–112 (j) for termination of parental rights on behalf of Gabriella, then two years old.6 The petitioner alleged that Gabriella had been found in a prior proceeding to be neglected, and that although the petitioner had made reasonable efforts to achieve reunification, the respondent was unable or unwilling to benefit from those efforts. As a result, the petitioner alleged that the respondent had failed to achieve the degree of personal rehabilitation that would encourage the belief that within a reasonable time, considering the age and needs of the child, she could assume a responsible position in the life of the child. The petitioner subsequently sought and obtained approval of a new permanency plan with the goal of termination of parental rights and adoption. Prior to the trial on the termination petition, Derek A. Franklin, a licensed clinical psychologist, was appointed by the court to conduct interactive assessments of the respondent and Gabriella.

At the trial on the petitioner's petition to terminate parental rights and the respondent's motion to revoke commitment, much of the testimony centered on the nature of the services provided to the respondent, and her progress toward the goals identified in the specific steps, that is, meeting Gabriella's need for safety and developing age appropriate parenting techniques. In addition to the testimony of the various treatment providers, the petitioner presented the testimony of Franklin, who opined that the respondent had certain personality traits, some of which raised grave concerns regarding her ability to parent Gabriella, and another trait that prevented her from being able to benefit from reunification...

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