In Re: Elijah J.
The consequences of a noncustodial parent remaining silent pursuant to Practice Book (2011) §35a-1(b), at the custodial parent's plea proceeding on neglect charges, may not lawfully include the later use of the parent's silence as a tacit admission of the truth of allegations as to which he stood silent to terminate his parental rights. The court granted the commissioner of children and families' petition to terminate the parental rights of the respondent father to his minor children, Elijah J. and Jasmine J., under C.G.S. §17a-112(j)(3)(B). The court found such termination in the best interests of the children, who previously were adjudicated neglected following the nolo contendere plea of their mother at a hearing where the respondent, the noncustodial parent, stood silent. The court found that after the neglect adjudications, the respondent failed, despite reasonable reunification efforts by the Department of Children and Families, to follow the court ordered specific steps to achieve a sufficient degree of personal rehabilitation. The respondent appealed claiming, inter alia, that the court erroneously based its conclusion in material part upon his election to stand silent in the neglect proceeding, which it improperly treated as a tacit admission of the truth of the allegations of the neglect petitions pertaining to him. The Appellate Court affirmed the judgments. Even if the court's description of the plea hearing could be construed to suggest that it considered the respondent's silence as a tacit admission of the truth of the allegations in the neglect petitions, those findings were harmless as they had no substantive impact on the termination proceeding's outcome. Relying materially upon such a silence based finding as a basis for deciding any ultimate issue in a termination proceeding would constitute reversible error, because it would allow the noncustodial parent's silence to be used as a basis for finding contested facts against him and allow improper use of his silence against him in a different proceeding, all without advance warning of such consequences. Here, the court's termination decision demonstrated that the challenged finding played no role in the court's resolution of the ultimate issues before it. The challenged finding, which purported to explain how the neglect adjudications occurred and specific steps issued, had no bearing on whether the respondent complied with those steps or what rehabilitation he achieved.