Family Law Keyed to Weisbergback
Brief Fact Summary. Defendant appealed the court’s decision to temporarily remove her children after her youngest child passed away from unknown causes.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Due to the fundamental interest of a parent in raising their children a showing of serious physical illness, or serious physical injury, or immediate physical danger must be demonstrated before children may be removed from a family.
Facts. Defendant and her six children lived in a small apartment in New Haven. They had been receiving protective service family services and support from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. A caseworker assigned to the family visited defendant’s home twenty-seven times. She considered the family situation marginal, but noted that the children were not abused or neglected and were happy and active, enjoying a warm relationship with their mother. Defendant’s youngest child died during the night and no cause of death could be determined, but the pediatrician noted some unexplained superficial marks on the child’s back. Plaintiff, commissioner of children and youth services seized custody of defendant’s remaining children because of the unexplained death. Family services filed petitions of neglect for each of the children, alleging the unexplained death, that defendant’s apartment was dirty with numerous roaches, that defendant had been observed drinking beer and
had been drunk on one occasion, that a neighbor reported the children had once been left alone all night, and that the two older children had occasionally went to school without eating breakfast. The court granted, ex parte, temporary custody to the commissioner. At a following temporary custody hearing, the deceased child’s pediatrician testified that the external marks on the child’s body were not the cause of death, that no internal injuries were found, and that the child had a viral lung infection. He also explained the term sudden infant death syndrome on cross-examination. The court found probable cause and ordered temporary custody to remain with the commissioner. The defendant appealed.
Issue. Does a Connecticut statute permitting temporary seizure of defendant’s children violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment both because it is an impermissible infringement on defendant’s right to family integrity, and because the statute is unconstitutionally vague?
Held. The statute is constitutional, but the court erred because there was no showing of serious physical illness, or serious physical injury, or immediate physical danger to warrant removing the children from defendant.
The Connecticut legislature has declared the public policy of the state is to protect children whose health and welfare may be adversely affected through injury and neglect; to strengthen the family and to make the home safe for children by enhancing the parental capacity for good child car; to provide a temporary or permanent nurturing and safe environment for children when necessary; and for these purposes to require the reporting of suspected child abuse, investigation of such reports by a social agency, and provision of services where needed, to such child and family. The court and agencies must keep in mind constitutional limitations in administering this policy, because the right to conceive and to raise one’s children is an essential basic civil right. Under the Duce Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Ninth Amendment, the custody, care and Nurture of the child reside first in the parents.
Because this case involves a fundamental right, the two-part test requiring a compelling state interest and a narrowly drawn legislative enactment meant to express only legitimate state interests is required. The state has a legitimate interest in protecting minor children when in the best interest of the child. However, studies indicate the best interests of the child are usually served by keeping the child in the home of the parents.
An order of temporary custody often results in the children of one family being separated and scattered. It is preferable to leave the family together even when the parent-child relationship is marginal. We agree with defendant that the state’s interest only becomes a compelling one only when the child is at risk of harm.
Any criteria used to determine when intervention is appropriate must take into account the competing interests involved. The parent has the interest of family integrity, and the state has the interest of protecting minor children. The child, however, has two often contradictory interests, the basic interest in safety and the interest in having a stable family environment.
The language of the statute limits the scope of intervention to cases where the state interest is compelling. Determination that the state interest is compelling does not confirm the constitutionality of the statute, it must also be narrowly drawn. This part is satisfied by requiring the assumption of temporary custody by necessary to insure the child’s safety. This requires all steps short of removal from the home to be used when possible.
The challenged temporary custody statute does not contain the serious physical illness or serious physical injury or immediate physical danger language of the other custody statute. However, the language limiting coercive intervention must be read as applying equally. Therefore, we do not agree with defendant’s contention that the statute is constitutional.
In the instant case there was no substantial showing that the defendant’s children were suffering from either serious physical illness or serious physical injury, or that they would be in immediate physical danger. There was no evidence before the court to indicate whether the child’s death was from natural causes or the result of abuse. It was therefore error for the court to grant the commissioner temporary custody.
Discussion. The Court found that the statute was constitutional because it should be read to require a showing of serious physical illness, or serious physical injury, or immediate physical danger before children may be removed from a family.