By DAVE COLLINS, Associated Press
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ The state Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that lower court judges denied a Waterbury-area man his right to contest child neglect allegations before he and his girlfriend lost parental rights to their two young children.
The high court reversed the judges’ rulings and ordered new hearings on the neglect allegations and whether the couple’s parental rights should be terminated. The decision upholds a 2-1 ruling by the state Appellate Court last year that included unusually strong language critical of the way the case was handled.
The couple’s names weren’t disclosed. Superior Court judges in Middletown had ruled in favor of the state Department of Children and Families in its efforts to pre-emptively take custody of the children shortly after their births in 2005 and 2006 because of concerns about both parents’ mental health.
The main issue in the case was whether parents who don’t have custody of their children can challenge neglect petitions filed in court by the DCF before their parental rights are taken away and DCF is awarded custody. The Supreme Court ruled they can.
In 2007, Judge Robin Wilson deemed the two children neglected and ordered them into DCF custody, even though the parents were with them only a few days in hospitals after their births. The ruling came under the state’s “doctrine of predictive neglect,” based on DCF officials’ belief that the children would be endangered because of the couple’s mental health problems.
The mother has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder and DCF officials say she has a history of failing to address her psychiatric problems, including not taking her medicine. The father has been diagnosed with a personality disorder and displayed poor parenting skills during supervised visits with the children, DCF officials said.
Wilson’s ruling came after the mother pleaded no contest to DCF’s allegations. The father said he tried to challenge his girlfriend’s plea and the neglect claims but Wilson wouldn’t let him speak during the hearing. The father later filed a motion to reopen the neglect case.
Judge Stuart Bear, now on the Appellate Court, denied the request to reopen the neglect case. But Bear ruled that the man, if he proved he was a “custodial” parent, could contest the neglect ruling during the hearing on termination of parental rights, which was held in 2008.
During the 2008 hearing, Judge Leslie Olear ruled that the father could not contest the neglect finding because he was not a “custodial” parent, meaning the children didn’t live with him and he hadn’t assumed the responsibility for their day-to-day care and supervision. Olear then terminated the couple’s parental rights.
Chief Justice Chase Rogers wrote in Thursday’s Supreme Court decision that interpreting state rules and laws to prohibit noncustodial parents from challenging neglect petitions “would raise serious constitutional questions.”
“A neglect finding can form the basis for a termination of parental rights, which both parents clearly have the right to contest,” Rogers wrote. “To compel a parent to stand silent while the child is adjudged as neglected, and then to use that unassailable neglect adjudication as a basis for terminating the parent’s parental rights would raise serious questions of due process.”
Last year, the Appellate Court, the state’s second-highest court, asked Olear to explain her ruling before it issued its decision. Olear replied that the father chose to stand silent during the neglect hearing before Wilson, and that action amounted to him acknowledging being a noncustodial parent.
“We find (Olear’s) articulation legally and factually troubling,” the Appellate Court decision said, noting that Bear determined that the father hadn’t stood silent at the neglect hearing.
Wilson and Olear didn’t immediately return phone messages Thursday. Bear declined to comment .
DCF also took custody of the mother’s first child, a daughter born in 2002. All three of the woman’s children are living with the same foster family, court documents say.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)