Theresa S., In re

Decision Date23 April 1985
Citation491 A.2d 355,196 Conn. 18
PartiesIn re THERESA S. et al. *
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

Jackie Chan, Danbury, for appellant (mother).

Judith M. Earl, Asst. Atty. Gen., with whom, on the brief, was Joseph I. Lieberman, Atty. Gen., for appellee (com'r of children and youth services).

John M. Wabiszczewicz, Waterbury, for minor children.

Before PETERS, C.J., and ARTHUR H. HEALEY, PARSKEY, SHEA and SANTANIELLO, JJ.

SANTANIELLO, Associate Justice.

The respondent mother's parental rights were terminated in proceedings before the trial court following a finding of neglect by a state trial referee. On appeal the respondent claims that the trial court erred (1) in applying an incorrect standard of proof to the parental termination proceeding, (2) in finding adequate evidence on which to base termination, and (3) in applying an improper "best interest" standard to the termination proceeding. The briefs of the attorney general for the commissioner of children and youth services and of the minor children raise the additional question of whether the purpose of parental rights termination under General Statutes §§ 17-32d(e) and 45-61b(g) is to free a child for adoption. 1

The trial referee found the following facts, which were also adopted by the trial court. On November 12, 1980, the respondent attempted to take her own life and the lives of her two minor children, who were then approximately two years old and four months old, by cutting their wrists and her own with a kitchen knife. Each of the children suffered a severed artery as a result of this assault and was in critical condition from loss of blood, but as a result of effective medical intervention at the hospital, each child was out of physical danger within forty-eight hours. Further surgery was required for the younger child approximately a month later to help her regain full use of her fingers. The respondent's self-inflicted injuries, unlike the injuries of her children, were not life threatening. It was determined after a psychiatric examination that her actions were the product of a psychotic episode wherein she "underwent the delusioned belief that it was necessary to kill herself and the children to protect them all from the devil who was seeking to possess them, and from the catastrophes that were about to beset the world." Because of her disturbed mental condition, upon discharge from the hospital on November 14, 1980, she was admitted to a mental institution where she remained for approximately five weeks.

The relationship of the respondent and her husband, before the events of November 12, 1980, can be characterized as unstable. The parties' marriage in 1972 was followed by the death of their first-born child. The couple separated for a year, then divorced, during which time for several months the respondent became involved with her husband's brother and underwent psychiatric treatment following an alleged suicide attempt. She thereafter remarried her husband and gave birth to two children. Following her second suicide attempt shortly after the birth of her youngest child, she became for a period of some four months the patient of a psychiatrist who treated her for a "thought disorder with anti-psychotic medication but did not feel she was motivated for treatment."

On the evening prior to the attack on the children, the respondent's husband returned home from his employment and discovered the children unfed and his wife lying on the bathroom floor with a large kitchen knife close at hand. She told him that she wanted to do away with herself and that the television set had been talking to her. In response to this behavior, the husband stayed home from his employment on the following day and went with his wife to his mother's home where she told her mother-in-law that she was God's daughter and her husband was Jesus Christ. During the day the respondent was taken to a church pastor who counseled both parties for approximately ninety minutes.

Notwithstanding the unsettling events of November 11 and November 12, and with the knowledge that the respondent had on two previous occasions attempted to take her own life, the husband left his wife and children at about 6:30 p.m. on November 12 to participate in his regular Wednesday night bowling game in Brookfield. It was upon his return, approximately three hours later, that he found the children bleeding in their cribs and his wife standing at the head of the stairs holding a bloody knife that she urged him to use upon himself.

On November 13, 1980, the respondent was arrested pursuant to a warrant on two counts of assault in the first degree in violation of General Statutes (Rev. to 1979) § 53a-59. 2 On December 19, the department of children and youth services (DCYS) brought coterminous petitions against both parents for neglect and termination of parental rights. Pending a judgment on the merits of the petitions, the children were placed in the temporary care and custody of DCYS. During this interval, the respondent was allowed to visit the children on a supervised basis. She also received substantial medical attention, and psychiatrists agreed that at the time of the assaults and attempted suicide she had suffered an "insane delusion." The physicians further agreed that the respondent is a schizophrenic with a history of acute depression.

On diverse days between August 24 and October 21, 1981, trial was held on the petitions for neglect and termination of parental rights before Thomas D. Gill, state trial referee. The referee filed reports on November 11 and November 12, 1981, recommending that both parents be adjudicated neglectful, but that only the respondent's parental rights be terminated.

Following this recommendation, the trial court, DeMayo, J., reviewed the reports of the referee, conducted an informal conference, 3 heard final arguments from all counsel and visited with the two minor children. On April 27, 1982, the court accepted the recommendation of the referee as to the respondent and rendered a judgment terminating her parental rights. Although the children's father was found guilty of neglect, the trial court specifically did not find sufficient evidence to terminate his parental rights. The respondent then brought the present appeal. On July 11, 1984, this court granted the attorney for the children permission to file a brief in the case.

The respondent's first claim of error is that the trial court did not follow the statutorily mandated criterion of "clear and convincing evidence," General Statutes § 17-43a, 4 but instead incorrectly applied a "strong evidence" standard in terminating her parental rights. The respondent contends that because the trial court used the phrase "strong evidence" in its memorandum of decision, and did not specifically state that its conclusions were based on "clear and convincing evidence," it in fact applied the wrong standard to the termination proceedings.

The petitions of neglect and to terminate parental rights were referred to the trial referee for a complete evidentiary hearing by agreement of all parties. The referee conducted substantial inquiry into the facts surrounding the case and made conclusions therefrom in his report to the court. His findings were clear, extensive, complete, and unequivocal. He specifically based his conclusions that the respondent should not be permitted to exercise any further parental rights, on "evidence so definitive as to meet the higher standard of proof applicable to termination actions, that of clear and convincing evidence...." 5 The parties did not pursue their right to correct these findings under Practice Book § 438. 6 The only motion to correct was filed by the respondent and was withdrawn prior to the conclusion of the hearing before the court. The trial referee filed his report with the court, which did not take any additional evidence but accepted the referee's evidentiary findings and conclusions. 7

The respondent claims that because the court used the phrase "strong evidence" in its decree it, in effect, did not apply the mandated standard of "clear and convincing evidence." We find that the court's use of the expression "strong evidence" was merely a fortuitous choice of words directed at only one segment of the many factors considered in a termination proceeding, namely, that the "children can never really be safe alone with their mother...." The trial court, by accepting the report of the trial referee in toto, applied the statutorily mandated criterion of "clear and convincing" to its evidentiary findings as to all factors applicable to termination proceedings.

The second claim of the respondent is that the trial court erred in finding sufficient evidence upon which to base termination. General Statutes (Rev. to 1983) § 45-61f(d) 8 requires two adjudicatory conclusions before a petition for termination of parental rights should be granted: It must be shown first that, as a result of acts of parental commission or omission, the child has suffered neglect; and, second, that the nature of the parental acts or deficiencies is such as to support the conclusion that, "the parent cannot exercise or should not, in the best interests of the child, be permitted to exercise, parental rights and duties."

The referee's report to the trial court included the following findings. The respondent's unwarranted and life threatening attacks on her children were caused by a psychotic episode where she believed that by killing the children she was protecting them from fantasized evils; that the respondent had made several prior attempts on her own life; that the children's sense of trust in their mother was seriously damaged by her physical assault on them; that her actions prior to these incidents were unstable and unpredictable; that as a result of hospitalization following the events of November 12, 1980, the respondent received...

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    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • September 21, 1999
    ...opposite conclusion on the basis of any one segment of the many factors considered in a termination proceeding .... In re Theresa S., [196 Conn. 18, 25, 491 A.2d 355 (1985)]." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) In re Christine F., supra, The Appellate Court did not expressly articulate its......
  • Bruce R., In re
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    ...rights, even in the absence of a pending adoption or state custodial placement. General Statutes § 45a-715(a); In re Theresa S., 196 Conn. 18, 30-31, 491 A.2d 355 (1985); In re Bruce R., supra, 34 Conn.App. at 180-81, 640 A.2d 643.11 General Statutes § 45a-716(b) provides: "The court shall ......
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