IN RE SANTIAGO G., SC 19449
Judicial District of Stamford
Juveniles; Whether Court Properly Upheld Child's Commitment Where Basis for Commitment was Found Never to Have Existed; Whether Court Properly Applied Best Interests Analysis to DCF’s Motion to Set Aside Neglect Adjudication on Ground of Mistake. The Department of Children and Families (department) sought a ruling that Santiago, a minor child, had been neglected by Maria, the woman who raised him for the first three years of his life. The department alleged that Maria had purchased Santiago in Guatemala, smuggled him into the country, and abused him. The trial court adjudicated the child neglected on the ground that his parents had abandoned him. On learning the identity of Santiago’s parents, that the allegations against Maria were unfounded and that Santiago’s mother wanted Maria to adopt him, the department changed its permanency plan and sought to have Maria adopt Santiago. The mother moved that Santiago’s commitment be revoked and that guardianship be transferred to Maria, claiming that the cause for commitment no longer existed. The department moved to set aside the neglect adjudication based on the ground of mutual mistake, claiming that it was mistakenly believed that Santiago was the victim of human trafficking and that the identity of his parents was unknown. The trial court refused to revoke the commitment or reverse the adjudication of neglect. As to the mother's motion, the court noted that, while it agreed that the basis for the commitment no longer existed, it credited the testimony of the expert called by the child's attorney, who opined that revocation of the commitment was not in Santiago’s best interests. As to the department's motion, the court found that mutual mistake did not trump the best interests of the child. The mother appealed, and the Appellate Court (154 Conn. App. 835) affirmed the judgment, rejecting the mother's claim that General Statutes § 46b-129 (m) did not allow the trial court to conduct a “best interests” analysis where no cause for the commitment existed in the first place. Section 46b-129 (m) provides that “a parent . . . may file a motion to revoke a commitment and, upon finding that cause for the commitment no longer exists, and that such revocation is in the best interests of the child . . . the court may revoke the commitment . . . .” The Appellate Court determined that, while the trial court improperly proceeded under subsection (m), rather than subsection (j), of § 46b-129, it nevertheless properly considered the child's best interests in resolving the mother's motion. Section 46b-129 (j) governs transfer of guardianship to a party other than a parent or former guardian and requires the court to determine whether transfer would be in the child's best interests. The Appellate Court ruled that, as the mother sought an order transferring guardianship to Maria, § 46b-129 (j) applied to her motion, but that the error was harmless because the trial court properly applied the best interests analysis required by § 46b-129 (j). Finally, the Appellate Court rejected the mother's claims that the trial court improperly found that it was in Santiago’s best interests to remain with a foster family and that the trial court improperly declined to consider the department's mutual mistake claim before undertaking a best interests analysis. The Supreme Court granted the mother certification to appeal and will decide the following issues: (1) Did the Appellate Court properly affirm the judgment denying the mother’s motion to revoke the commitment where both the mother and the department agree that the initial basis for the state’s removal of the child from his home was found never to have existed? (2) Did the Appellate Court properly affirm the judgment denying the department’s motion to set aside judgments of neglect and commitment due to a mistake in favor of a best interests determination regarding the child’s current placement?