January 01, 2014

Reunification Orders Required For Incarcerated Parent

Scott Trowbridge

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

In re Elvin G., 2013 WL 5911448 (Conn.).

Trial court erred in finding specific reunification orders were not required before terminating parental rights for failure to rehabilitate. However, error was harmless because father was incarcerated repeatedly for most of the children’s lives. Any orders would not have changed termination ground or best interests findings. 

Father had been incarcerated for most of his nine and ten-year-old children’s lives by the time of the termination trial for drug offenses, escape, and a federal weapons charge. The children were adjudicated dependent when the mother tested positive for phenylcyclohexyl piperidine (PCP) when a half-sibling was born. 

The children were placed with the mother under agency supervision, then with their grandmother after the mother could not resolve her substance abuse issues. Eventually they were placed with foster parents after the grandmother became ill. The mother was subject to court orders during this time with specific steps designed to alleviate the conditions that led to care. 

While the children were placed with the mother, she refused to allow visits with the father in prison but he had contact by phone. After their physical removal, the agency facilitated monthly in-person visits. Visits were reported to be positive with occasional misbehavior by the children. 

These visits took place while the father was in federal prison in New York. He lost visitation privileges due to marijuana use and the restriction was not lifted despite written pleas from the agency. The father was then moved to California and Arizona prisons. 

At the termination trial, the court found the agency had provided reasonable efforts to help the father reunify because it encouraged him to engage in services in prison and facilitated visits. The trial court rejected the father’s argument that he should have been ordered specific rehabilitation because it found any services would be futile since he was incarcerated through most of the dependency case. 

The trial court also rejected the father’s claim that the agency should have placed the child with his wife so he would could reunite with the children when he was released since the children did not know her. Based on this, the trial court found the father had failed to remedy the conditions that led to care. 

The trial court also found termination was in the children’s best interests. Both children had serious behavioral problems requiring therapeutic school and home environments. They had just recently start to stabilize, bond with the foster parents, and express a desire to be adopted. While neither had overly negative feelings about the father, they did not see him as a nurturing, supportive figure. 

The trial court terminated the father’s parental rights, and the father appealed.

The Supreme Court of Connecticut affirmed the termination. The court considered the trial court’s finding that termination for failure to rehabilitate did not require specific steps for reunification be ordered. The court examined the language and grammatical structure of the termination ground, finding that the requirement for specific orders did apply to the ground. It found the trial court had erred in relying on a case that held that abandonment did not required an order for specific steps, as it was distinguishable. 

However, although a court must have ordered specific reunification steps before terminating on ground of failure to rehabilitate, the error was harmless in the case. 

The court noted that specific reunification orders help parents know what they should do to regain custody of their children, but they are not dispositive. A parent could complete all the tasks but still be unable to provide a safe home. A parent could also fail to comply with an order, and still prove they gained the skills and insights to safely parent. 

If the father had been ordered specific services, they likely would have consisted of participating in counseling, substance abuse treatment, establishing a suitable home, visiting, and refraining from criminal activities. Despite the court order, the agency had encouraged the father to participate in services, and he had done so in prison. He also participated in family counseling by phone. Because of his incarcerations and infractions, however, he was unable to benefit from the services. 

The father also argued that the trial court improperly terminated his parental rights solely due to incarceration. The Supreme Court disagreed. It found the trial court considered the total situation, including how little time the father had actually parented the children when he was not incarcerated, his disciplinary issues, and the long-term nature of his incarceration.