NICHOLAS FRANK v. DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILIES, SC 18980
Judicial District of New Britain
Child Abuse; Teachers; Whether Appellate Court Failed to Properly Credit Findings of Hearing Officer; Whether General Statutes § 46b-120 (3) is Unconstitutionally Vague as Applied to Teacher's Allegedly Abusive Classroom Conduct Toward Student. The defendant department of children and families placed the plaintiff teacher's name on its central registry of child abusers after a hearing officer found that the plaintiff emotionally abused one of his elementary school students, K, by referring to him by certain nicknames and by pinching his cheeks. The plaintiff appealed to the trial court, which affirmed the decision. The Appellate Court reversed (134 Conn. App. 288), finding that the statute that defines an abused child, § 46b-120 (3), is unconstitutionally vague as applied to the plaintiff's conduct because the plaintiff could not have been on notice that his behavior amounted to emotional abuse of a student by a teacher in an educational context. Section 46b-120 (3) defines an abused child as one who, among other things, "is in a condition that is the result of maltreatment, including, but not limited to, malnutrition, sexual molestation or exploitation, deprivation of necessities, emotional maltreatment or cruel punishment. . . ." The court noted that after the plaintiff learned that K had a traumatic history that made him particularly vulnerable to teasing, there was no evidence that any further name calling or cheek-pinching occurred. The court then found that the defendant's hearing officer improperly applied a subjective rather than an objective standard in determining whether the plaintiff's conduct constituted emotional abuse. It explained that the hearing officer should have determined whether the plaintiff's behavior would have constituted emotional abuse as to any child, not just to a particularly sensitive student when the plaintiff had no prior knowledge of that student's sensitivity. The court then found that the defendant did not prove that the plaintiff's behavior would amount to emotional abuse of any child, especially given evidence that the plaintiff engaged in similar behavior with many other students and that none of those students were adversely affected or made accusations of emotional abuse. The court also found that the fact that school officials conducted investigations into the plaintiff's conduct and did not find that it amounted to abuse tended to show that his behavior did not pose such an obvious risk of adversely affecting K that it would be within the knowledge of an ordinary person and further that the plaintiff could not have been expected to be on notice that his behavior constituted abuse. The Appellate Court accordingly remanded with direction to order the defendant to reverse the substantiation of emotional abuse and to remove the plaintiff's name from the child abuse and neglect registry. The Supreme Court granted the defendant's petition for certification to appeal and raise the following issues: "(1) Did the Appellate Court properly reverse the judgment of the trial court or did it fail to properly credit the findings of the hearing officer? (2) If the answer to the first question is in the affirmative, did the Appellate Court properly determine that General Statutes § 46b-120 (3) is unconstitutionally vague as applied to the plaintiff's conduct in the classroom regarding one of his students, because the plaintiff could not have been on notice that his behavior could be considered `emotional abuse' as defined by the defendant's regulations?"