September 01, 2015

Supreme Court Exercised Supervisory Authority to Require Trial Court to Canvass Parents Prior to Termination of Parental Rights Trial

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 Yasiel R., 2015 WL 4680411 (Conn.).

Supreme Court exercised its inherent supervisory authority over the administration of justice to require that a trial court briefly question all parents immediately before a parental rights termination trial about the parent’s right to contest allegations and ensure that parents understand the trial process, their rights during trial, and potential consequences.

A mother gave birth to her fourth child when she was 22 years old. The father was 15 years old at the time, and the mother was later arrested for statutory rape. The father moved in with the mother while she was pregnant. After the child was born, the father became increasingly violent. The mother said she did not want to remain in the relationship and wished to leave, but she became pregnant with her fifth child only four months after her fourth child was born. The two children were removed from the mother’s care and she was provided with supervised visitation and transportation.

Due to the mother’s various arrests and her mental health and substance abuse issues, the child welfare agency filed petitions to terminate her parental rights. According to the agency, the court advised the mother of her trial rights, entered denials to the petitions on her behalf, and appointed her an attorney. A contested hearing was scheduled. At no time did the court canvass the respondent personally to question her decisions not to contest the petitioner’s exhibits and to waive her right to a full trial. The court terminated the mother’s parental rights to both children.

On appeal, the mother argued that the trial court violated her right to due process when it failed to canvass her. Due process does not require that a trial court question a parent who is represented by counsel about the decision not to contest the state’s exhibits and to waive the right to full trial in parental termination proceedings, when the parent does not testify or present witnesses and the parent’s attorney does not object to exhibits or cross-examine witnesses.

The appellate court requested supplemental briefs to answer the following question: even if the court finds that the mother could not prevail on her claim that the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment requires canvassing the parent, should the court nevertheless consider whether to require the canvass under its inherent supervisory authority over the administration of justice? Should the appellate court exercise its supervisory authority to require such a canvass before a termination of parental rights trial?

The mother urged the court to use its supervisory power to require a canvass when there is no testimony offered by the parent, no objection to exhibits, and no cross-examination of witnesses. Because the case involves safeguards for securing a fundamental right, the mother urged the court to use its supervisory authority to guide the trial courts in the administration of justice.

The child welfare agency asserted that using the court’s supervisory authority to require a canvass would inject it into the relationship between counsel and the parent by requiring the court to canvass a parent directly about her counsel’s trial strategy. The agency further argued that the reasons that constitutional due process does not require a canvass in this situation also argues against adopting a rule that would create the same sort of intrusion and that it would be very difficult to craft a rule that applies to all situations. In addition, the Rules Committee of the Superior Court and other attorneys experienced in the area had not had the opportunity to express their opinion on the matter. 

The court agreed with the mother that, in the interest of the fair administration of justice and to ensure the overall fairness of the termination of parental rights process, it is appropriate to exercise its supervisory authority to require that a trial court canvass the respondent parent before the start of any termination trial. The canvass required of all parents involved in a parental rights termination trial, not just those whose attorneys choose not to contest evidence, need not be lengthy. The trial court must just be convinced that the parent fully understands his or her rights.