Connecticut Appellate Court in Hartford. Connecticut Appellate Court in Hartford. Photo: Google

The Connecticut Appellate Court has upheld a lower court ruling leaving guardianship of a 7-year-old boy with his maternal aunt, despite objections by the boy’s mother who plans to appeal to the Connecticut Supreme Court.

In a 3-0 ruling Oct. 30, the Connecticut Appellate Court, while acknowledging the boy was not neglected by the mother, still said the boy, known in court papers as Zakai F., was better suited to live with his aunt.

In July 2013, Kristi F. agreed to voluntarily relinquish guardianship of her son to Nikki F., Kristi’s sister. At the time, the parties agreed that Zakai would be cared for temporarily by Nikki while the boy’s mother pursued employment opportunities, secured funds to obtain proper housing and obtained a reliable vehicle. Both sides then agreed that the mother would take back guardianship of her son around February 2014. But shortly after the boy moved back with his mother, it’s alleged he was physically assaulted and seriously injured by the mother’s then-boyfriend while Kristi was at work.

Both the mother and the boyfriend were criminally charged with assault, although the court found the mother did not take part in the abuse. The charges against the mother were dropped, but the charges against the boyfriend continued to be prosecuted.

After the beating, the boy’s mother agreed—once again—to allow her sister to take guardianship of the boy temporarily. About five days later, court papers said, Kristi sought to have the boy move back in with her. But her sister balked and instead filed for custody and guardianship with Derby Probate Court. The case was eventually transferred to Superior Court, where it languished for four years.

While Nikki has claimed her sister physically assaulted her son, those claims were strongly disputed by Benjamin Wattenmaker, attorney for the mother. The courts never found Kristi assaulted her own son, only that her boyfriend did, Wattenmaker said.

In December 2017, the lower court wrote that the mother made poor parenting decisions.

“One of the remaining obstacles that needs to be navigated now, is whether the [respondent's choices] and who she allows Zakai to be cared for and to have contact with are sound and safe choices,” the lower court ruled. “[The] court knows that there is no one in this courtroom today [and] no one more so than [the petitioner and the respondent], that want Zakai to be placed in physical or emotional jeopardy. … These traumatic, tragic events occurred due in large part to choices and exercises in judgment by [the mother]. Zakai cannot afford to have history repeat itself.” The tragic events cited by the lower court include the beating by the boyfriend and the death of Zakai’s sister, who died when the mother left her in her father’s care.

Writing for the Appellate Court panel, Judge Stuart Bear said that “while the rights of parents … to the custody of their children is an important principle that has constitutional dimensions … we recognize that even parental rights are not absolute.” Bear also wrote “the [lower] court found important Zakai’s need for stability, and his strong desire to know his one forever home.”

Wattenmaker, who is with Hartford-based Feiner Wolfson, told the Connecticut Law Tribune Monday he is reasonably optimistic that the state Supreme Court will take a look at this case.

Wattenmaker said he believes the case could be overturned because “in cases where parents have voluntarily relinquished guardianship and there has never been a finding of neglect, the courts usually have a far more rigorous standard of review to protect the parents’ fundamental right of the custody of their child.”

The boy’s aunt was represented by Albert Oneto IV of Hamden-based Ricciardi & Oneto. Oneto did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

The attorney for the boy, MIlford-based solo practitioner David Rozwaski, did not respond to a request for comment.