In re Zakai F., SC 20234

CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut
Writing for the CourtMcDONALD, J.
Docket NumberSC 20234
PartiesIN RE ZAKAI F.
Decision Date22 July 2020

IN RE ZAKAI F.*

SC 20234

Supreme Court of Connecticut

Argued May 2, 2019
July 22, 2020***


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

Syllabus

The respondent mother appealed to the Appellate Court from the judgment of the trial court, which denied her motion for reinstatement of guardianship rights with respect to her minor child, Z. The respondent had voluntarily agreed to relinquish temporary guardianship of Z to Z's maternal aunt, the petitioner. Subsequently, when the respondent requested that the petitioner return Z to her care, the petitioner filed in the Probate Court a petition for immediate, temporary custody of Z and an application for the removal of the respondent as the guardian of Z. The Probate Court issued an order vesting the petitioner with immediate, temporary custody of Z. Thereafter, the case was transferred to the Superior Court, where the parties entered into a stipulated agreement, pursuant to which the court transferred guardianship of Z to the petitioner but ordered limited visitation between Z and the respondent. Subsequently, the respondent filed her motion for reinstatement. In denying the respondent's motion and granting a separate motion filed by Z's guardian ad litem to suspend overnight visitation with the respondent, the trial court found that the respondent was capable of adequately providing for Z and that there had never been a judicial adjudication of neglect or abuse of Z but nevertheless concluded, on the basis of a fair preponderance of the evidence, that reinstatement of the respondent's guardianship rights was not in Z's best interests. On appeal to the Appellate Court, the respondent claimed, inter alia, that the trial court violated her federal constitutional right to the care and custody of Z in denying her motion for reinstatement without finding that she was unfit and without finding by clear and convincing evidence that Z would be at a substantial risk of harm if guardianship were terminated. Thereafter, the Appellate Court affirmed the trial court's judgment, concluding that the respondent could not prevail on her unpreserved claim under the third prong of State v. Golding (213 Conn. 233) because the petitioner and Z, through his guardian ad litem, rebutted the constitutional presumption that reunification with the respondent was in Z's best interests. The Appellate Court also concluded that proof by a fair preponderance of the evidence was the applicable standard in a proceeding for reinstatement of guardianship. On the granting of certification, the respondent appealed to this court, claiming that she was entitled to a presumption that reinstatement was in the best interests of Z and to a heightened standard of proof. Held that a parent seeking reinstatement of guardianship pursuant to statute (§ 45a-611), who has demonstrated that the factors that resulted in the parent's removal as guardian have been resolved satisfactorily, is entitled to a rebuttable, constitutional presumption that reinstatement is in the best interests of the child, a third party seeking to rebut that presumption must do so by clear and convincing evidence, and, because it was unclear whether the trial court applied this presumption, and because that court applied the preponderance of the evidence standard, the judgment of the Appellate Court was reversed, and the case was remanded for further proceedings: this court previously concluded in In re Juvenile Appeal (Anonymous) (177 Conn. 648) that parents of a child committed to the state youth and children services agency are entitled to a presumption, in the absence of a continuing cause for commitment, that revocation of such commitment will be in the child's best interests, and it found that conclusion to be equally applicable to reinstatement of guardianship proceedings; moreover, this court concluded, after weighing the factors set forth in Mathews v. Eldridge (424 U.S. 319), that due process requires a third party seeking to rebut the presumption that reinstatement of guardianship is in the child's best interests to do so by clear and convincing evidence, as the application of that heightened standard of proof in this context most appropriately balances the parent's interest in the companionship, care, custody and

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management of his or her child, and the interest of the child in safety and consistency, as well as not being dislocated from the emotional attachments that derive from the intimacy of daily association with his or her parent; furthermore, application of the clear and convincing standard in this context serves to reduce the risk of error, the cost of which is significant given the weight of the private interests at stake, and serves the interests of the state in protecting the welfare of the child, reducing the cost and burden of guardianship proceedings, and ensuring that such proceedings are conducted fairly.

Procedural History

Petition by the maternal aunt for immediate, temporary custody of the respondent mother's minor child and application by the petitioner for the removal of the respondent as guardian of the child, brought to the Probate Court for the district of Derby, which issued an order vesting the petitioner with immediate, temporary custody of the child; thereafter, the case was transferred to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Ansonia-Milford, where the respondent filed a motion to vacate the order of immediate, temporary custody; subsequently, the case was transferred to the Superior Court in the judicial district of New Haven, Juvenile Matters, where the guardianship of the child was transferred to the petitioner pursuant to a stipulated agreement between the parties; thereafter, the court, Conway, J., denied the respondent's motion to reinstate her guardianship rights, granted the motion filed by the guardian ad litem to suspend overnight visitation with the respondent, and rendered judgment thereon, from which the respondent appealed to the Appellate Court, DiPentima, C. J., and Alvord and Bear, Js., which affirmed the judgment of the trial court, and the respondent, on the granting of certification, appealed to this court. Reversed; further proceedings.

Benjamin M. Wattenmaker, assigned counsel, for the appellant (respondent mother).

Albert J. Oneto IV, assigned counsel, for the appellee (petitioner).

David B. Rozwaski, assigned counsel, for the minor child.

Joshua Michtom, assistant public defender, filed a brief for the Office of the Chief Public Defender as amicus curiae.

Louise Truax and Leslie I. Jennings-Lax filed a brief for the Connecticut Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers as amicus curiae.

Stacy L. Schleif and Jay E. Siklick filed a brief for the Center for Children's Advocacy, Inc., as amicus curiae.

William Tong, attorney general, Clare Kindall, solicitor general, and Michael Besso, Benjamin Zivyon, Evan O'Roark and Sara Nadim Swallen, assistant attorneys general, filed a brief for the Commissioner of Children and Families as amicus curiae.

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Opinion

McDONALD, J. In this certified appeal, we must determine whether there is a constitutional presumption that reinstatement of guardianship rights to a parent under General Statutes § 45a-6111 is in the best interests of the child and, if so, whether a heightened standard of proof is required to rebut that presumption. The respondent mother,2 Kristi F., appeals from the judgment of the Appellate Court, which affirmed the trial court's denial of her motion for reinstatement of guardianship rights with respect to her minor son, Zakai F., on the basis that reinstatement was not in Zakai's best interests. See In re Zakai F., 185 Conn. App. 752, 755, 776-77, 198 A.3d 135 (2018). On appeal, the respondent contends that she is entitled to a presumption that reinstatement is in the best interests of the child and that she is also entitled to a heightened standard of proof.

We conclude that, under § 45a-611, once a parent demonstrates that the factors that resulted in the removal of the parent as guardian have been resolved satisfactorily, the parent is entitled to a presumption that reinstatement of guardianship rights is in the best interests of the child. We also conclude that the party opposing reinstatement must rebut this presumption by clear and convincing evidence. In the present case, because it is unclear whether the trial court applied this presumption, and because it did not determine that the petitioner had rebutted that presumption by clear and convincing evidence, we conclude that the trial court improperly denied the respondent's motion for reinstatement of guardianship. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Appellate Court.

The record reveals the following relevant facts and procedural history. Zakai was born in early 2011 and resided with the respondent until approximately July, 2013, when the respondent voluntarily agreed that the petitioner, Nikki F., the respondent's sister and Zakai's maternal aunt, would care for Zakai. The parties agreed that the petitioner would temporarily care for Zakai while the respondent pursued employment opportunities and obtained appropriate housing and a reliable vehicle. The respondent reassumed custody and care of Zakai in late January or early February, 2014. Thereafter, Zakai was physically assaulted by the respondent's live-in boyfriend, Montreal C., while the respondent was at work. Although both Montreal and the respondent were initially criminally charged after the assault, the charges against the respondent were dropped.

Given the respondent's continued work commitments and Zakai's emotional and physical state following Montreal's abuse of Zakai, the respondent agreed that Zakai again would stay temporarily with the peti-

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tioner. Less than one week later, the respondent requested that the petitioner return Zakai to her care. The petitioner did not respond to the respondent's request but, instead, filed a...

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