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November 4, 2005
Case Law Development: Trial Court's Acceptance of Stipulation to One Count of Child Abuse and Neglect Action Does Not Permit Sua Sponte Dismissal of Alternative Counts
The Connecticut Supreme Court reviewed this case involving a nonverbal child with cerebral palsy who had been repeatedly sexually molested by her uncle while in his care. The parents knew of the uncle's prior history of sexually abusing children but continued to send the child to his home on weekends. The commissioner of children and families filed a child abuse and neglect action, alleging grounds of uncared for and of neglect.
The trial court presided over settlement discussion in which the parents agreed to an order of committment for the child and to comply with reunification plans, but would not admit that their conduct played a role in the sexual assault and thereby constituted neglect. The trial court then presided over the dispositional hearing at which, based on the stipulations of the parents in the pretrial conference, he entered an order of commitment for hte child and a reunification plan for the parents. He refused the Commissioner's request for an evidentiary hearing on the neglect charge, but sua sponte dismissed it without prejudice.
The commissioner's appeal was dismissed as moot because the Appellate court held that the commissioner had already obtained all the relief it sought (commitment of the child). The Connecticut Supreme Court reversed, holding that the commissioner was sufficiently aggreived by the failure to hold a hearing on the neglect petition, as failure to adjudicate the neglect allegation could affect adversely the course of future proceedings to protect the child. The Supreme Court refused to view the situation as analogous to a civil damages action in which judgment on one count renders alternative counts moot. Rather, the court noted that the failure to adjudicate the neglect allegation would likely delay, if not jeapordize, a future action for termination of parental rights should the reunification efforts fail.
The Supreme Court also noted that the trial court's action in conducting a pretrial settlement conference and then arriving at a judgment based on the discussions in that conference, with a factual hearing, was improper. "in the absence of both parties' consent, "when a judge engages in a pretrial settlement discussion in a court case, he should automatically disqualify himself from presiding in the case in order to eliminate any appearance of impropriety and to avoid subtle suspicions of prejudice or bias."
In re Allison G., 2005 Conn. LEXIS 455 (November 1, 2005)
Opinion on the web at http://www.jud.state.ct.us/external/supapp/Cases/AROcr/CR276/276CR3.pdf (last visited November 3, 2005 bgf)