Juvenile Appeal, In re

Decision Date12 June 1979
Citation420 A.2d 875,177 Conn. 648
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

Frank B. Cochran, New Haven, with whom were Albert Hilburger, East Lyme, and, on the brief, Martha Stone and, of the New York bar, Martin Guggenheim and Bruce Ennis, New York City, for appellant (plaintiff).

Carol Feinstein, Asst. Atty. Gen., with whom were Paul M. Shapiro, Asst. Atty. Gen., and, on the brief, Carl R. Ajello, Atty. Gen., for appellee (defendant).

Robert I. Reardon, Jr., New London, for the minor child.


PETERS, Associate Justice.

This is an appeal by the plaintiff, the mother of a seven year old girl, from the judgment of the Superior Court dismissing her appeal from the Juvenile Court. The Juvenile Court had denied the plaintiff's petition, pursuant to General Statutes § 17-62(f), (now § 46b-129(f)), to revoke the commitment of her daughter to the defendant Commissioner of Children and Youth Services, and had simultaneously granted the commissioner's petition, pursuant to General Statutes § 17-43a, to terminate the plaintiff's parental rights. The plaintiff also appeals from the denial by the Juvenile Division of the Superior Court of her motion for immediate visitation.

In order fully to understand the unfortunate situation with which this court is confronted, it is necessary to spell out in some detail the sequence of events that led to this appeal. In January 1972, the plaintiff gave birth to her only child, the daughter whose custody is in issue in this case. Because her husband had previously been paralyzed and severely disabled, and was unable to work, the plaintiff, who had been supporting her family since 1967, returned to work when her child was four months old in order to continue to support her family and to avoid welfare. During her mother's working hours, the child was left with a reliable babysitter, as her father was physically incapable of caring for her. When the child was nine months old, the mother changed babysitters and the child was thereafter cared for during the day by Mrs. M., a prominent figure in this appeal. From November 1972 until July 1975, Mrs. M. cared for the child on working days from approximately 9 a. m. until 5 p. m. At all other times, the child was in the custody and care of her mother.

On July 16, 1975, the plaintiff encountered unforeseeable difficulties in relation to the custody of her child. That morning, the plaintiff left her daughter, then three and one half years old, with Mrs. M. for routine day care. Because she had been feeling somewhat nervous and depressed, the plaintiff proceeded to consult a doctor, who, after a brief consultation, immediately referred her to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist, after speaking with the plaintiff for only 15 or 20 minutes, diagnosed her as suffering from a "mental disability," and involuntarily committed her to the Norwich State Hospital. She remained confined at the Norwich State Hospital for approximately six weeks, and, although she lost 30 pounds during her stay, the correctness of the original diagnosis was apparently not questioned. The plaintiff's daughter, meanwhile, was being cared for full time by the babysitter, Mrs. M., who brought the child to see her mother several times during her confinement at Norwich.

With the help of her sister, the plaintiff was able to obtain her release from Norwich in early September of 1975. Still very sick and seriously underweight, she traveled to her family's home in Maine and after two days was admitted to the Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Maine. There she was accurately diagnosed as suffering from acute hyperthyroidism and began receiving appropriate treatment. She remained in the Maine hospital until late October of 1975, there regaining her weight and her physical and emotional strength.

The plaintiff's daughter, who during the three and one half month period of her mother's illness had lived in the home of Mrs. M., was on October 21, 1975, adjudicated an "uncared for" child and committed to the defendant Commissioner of Children and Youth Services. She remained in the home of Mrs. M., who was designated as her foster mother and who received monthly foster care benefits. The plaintiff, still hospitalized in Maine, was unable to appear at the October 21 commitment hearing, but an attorney for her husband did appear and stated that although the plaintiff did not consent to the "uncared for" adjudication, she was aware that foster care was at that time the best option for her daughter. 1 One week after the commitment of her daughter to the Commissioner of Children and Youth Services, the plaintiff was released from the Maine hospital and went to live with her mother in Maine to continue her convalescence. Soon thereafter she began her efforts to regain custody of her daughter.

Within a week after her discharge from the Maine hospital, the plaintiff contacted her child's social worker from the Department of Children and Youth Services (hereinafter DCYS) to inquire about getting her back. He informed her that a Maine social worker would first have to confirm her recovery, but that there should be no problem about her daughter's return to her custody. An initial investigation in December 1975 by the Maine counterpart to the DCYS revealed that the plaintiff had not yet recovered sufficiently to care for her child on a full-time basis. A second investigation in February 1976, however, was favorable to the plaintiff, and the Maine social worker then felt that she was ready to care for her child.

The plaintiff testified that during this period of recuperation she wrote to her daughter every day and telephoned her about three times per week. She made no visits to Connecticut during this period because she believed she would not be allowed to see her daughter without prior DCYS approval, and had no money for a seemingly futile trip. The plaintiff also testified that for several months no one at the DCYS returned her calls and that she was eventually told that the original social worker had left the agency and no new social worker had yet been assigned to her case. She heard from no one at the DCYS from November 1975 until April 8, 1976, when the child's new social worker contacted her by letter. 2 The plaintiff then came to Connecticut immediately and had several visits with her daughter during the week of April 12. She also retained a Connecticut lawyer to institute proceedings to revoke her daughter's commitment to the defendant. She then returned to Maine to await court action 3 and resumed communication with her daughter by letters and telephone calls. 4

An initial hearing on the plaintiff's motion to revoke commitment was held on September 9, 1976. At that time the DCYS admitted that they had favorable reports on the plaintiff's condition from the Maine social worker and that they hoped to recommend that the child be returned to her mother. There was some concern about recent behavioral problems exhibited by the child and the parties agreed upon a two month continuance to allow the child to be evaluated by the New London Child Guidance Clinic. 5 During this two month period the plaintiff was allowed by the DCYS to visit her daughter three times a week, for several hours a day on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays; no overnight visits, however, were allowed. At that time, and throughout the course of the Juvenile Court proceedings, the plaintiff was living with relatives of her husband.

The second hearing on the plaintiff's petition to revoke commitment was scheduled for November 4, 1976. Since the evaluation from the Child Guidance Clinic had only recently been received, a second continuance was requested in order for the parties to examine the reports from the clinic. The attorney for the DCYS at this hearing informed the court that child and mother had been visiting three times a week, and that "there have been some problems, but things are going along." Yet that very day, because of some perceived behavioral problems in the child, the plaintiff's visitation rights were reduced by the DCYS to once weekly, and soon thereafter to every other week. On November 30, 1976, the DCYS filed a petition to terminate parental rights.

At the third hearing on the plaintiff's petition to revoke commitment, on December 14, 1976, the case was once again continued because of the intervening petition by the DCYS to terminate parental rights, and because the parties desired time to request that a further study be done by the Yale Child Study Center. The parties also requested that the plaintiff's petition for revocation and the defendant's petition for termination be heard simultaneously. Although the attorney for the DCYS conceded that there was still a chance for the plaintiff to regain custody, she stated that it was the intention of the DCYS, if successful on the termination petition, to place the child for adoption with Mrs. M. and her husband, the foster parents.

After the Yale Child Study Center declined to do an evaluation in this case, a joint trial on petitions for revocation and for termination was finally begun on February 7, 1977, one year after the plaintiff had been evaluated as fit to resume custody by the Maine social worker. Testimony occupied several days in February and March, and on April 20, 1977, the Juvenile Court rendered its decision denying the plaintiff's petition for revocation of commitment, terminating the parental rights of the plaintiff and her husband, and appointing the defendant Commissioner of Children and Youth Services as statutory parent for the purpose of placing the plaintiff's daughter in adoption with Mr. and Mrs. M. The plaintiff's visitation rights also were severed at the time of this decision. The Juvenile Court subsequently denied the...

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