This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Matter of the Welfare of:
A.D., J.D., and A.D., Minor Children.
Filed September 19, 2000
Steele County District Court
File No. J79950808
Linda Pauline Zarrett, Patton, Hoversten & Berg, P.A., P.O. Box 249, Waseca, MN 56093 (for appellant mother)
Jeffrey Michael Johnson, Schurhammer & Johnson, 25 N.W. Second Street, Faribault, MN 55021 (for appellant father)
Douglas L. Ruth, Steele County Attorney, Christine Anne Long, Assistant County Attorney, 303 South Cedar, Owatonna, MN 55060 (for respondent Steele County)
Kent D. Rossi, Rossi Law Office, P.O. Box 618, Owatonna, MN 55060 (for Guardian ad Litem)
Considered and decided by Amundson, Presiding Judge, Toussaint, Chief Judge, and Schumacher, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
TOUSSAINT, Chief Judge
In this termination of parental rights proceeding, the parents allege that the evidence is insufficient to support termination for their: (1) palpable unfitness to be a party to the parent-child relationship; and (2) failure to correct the conditions leading to the CHIPS determination. Because we conclude that the district court did not err in finding that the effects of their unstable mental health render both parents palpably unfit to parent, we affirm.
On March 3, 2000, the district court terminated the parental rights of appellant parents to their children, A.D. (age 10), J.D. (8), and A.D. (4).
For the last twenty years, both parents have been diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia. The record revealed that: (1) schizophrenia is an incurable brain disorder characterized by positive symptoms (hallucinations, delusions, and thought disorder) and negative symptoms (difficulty concentrating, flat affect, low energy, disorganization, and low motivation); and (2) psychotropic drugs are usually successful at controlling positive symptoms, but cannot prevent the negative symptoms.
The record further revealed that: (1) the parents have been married about ten years; (2) both have received a multitude of services through respondent Steele County, especially since they had children; (3) the offered services were aimed at managing their mental illness and assisting them in properly caring for their children; (4) the services included case management services, psychiatric care, parenting classes, money management services, employment assistance, day-care assistance, respite foster care, and in-home therapy; and (5) from 1992-97, these services sometimes included a home health aide several times each week to help with housecleaning, getting children up for school, helping to prepare meals, helping with laundry, and modeling parenting skills.
Up to February 1999, these extensive services permitted the children to remain in the family home. The events that precipitated the out-of-home placement started in February 1999, when mother reported to her psychiatrist that she had gone off her psychotropic medications at the urging of father. She was exhibiting thought disorder and delusions. On February 7, 1999, the mother voluntarily agreed to place the children in foster care for one week. Respondent Steele County filed a CHIPS petition, and on May 5, 1999, the children were adjudicated CHIPS.
After the children were placed out-of-home, mother moved into a shelter for abused women, reporting that father hit her in the temple, pushed her, and threatened to cut her throat. On February 23, 1999, based upon these allegations, the district court issued a one-year order for protection in favor of mother.
From February 7, 1999, until the termination trial (February 2000), respondent continued to offer services, but most focused on stabilizing the parent’s mental health. Other services included visitation (supervised and unsupervised), transportation services, medical and dental care for the children, and parent aide services for mother.
During this time period, father was admitted twice to St. Peter Regional Treatment Center. On April 26, 1999, the district court ordered judicial commitment for father based upon a psychiatric examination that found him delusional and psychotic, resulting in his making specific threats to kill the mother’s doctor and break the mother’s jaw. At the time of the termination trial, the father: (1) had been at St. Peter for almost 11 months; (2) had been on psychotropic drugs, but was still exhibiting thought disorder problems 2 weeks before trial; and (3) was taking psychotropic drugs in crushed form to ensure compliance. Father’s psychiatrist testified that the father still lacks insight about the necessity of taking medication. Father has a history of discontinuing medication, and had urged the mother to discontinue her medications on multiple occasions.
During this same time period, the mother: (1) was hospitalized twice, released to a halfway house, then returned home in July 1999; (2) had fairly stable mental health, though she still remains under county supervision with case management services, psychiatric care, day treatment, and transportation; and (3) has frequent telephone contact with the father (in violation of the OFP) with expressed desire to reunite with him.
Since July 1999, both parents are under conservatorship. The conservator declared bankruptcy on their behalf based upon large credit card debt. The family home was also lost to foreclosure.
Eight witnesses testified at the termination trial, including appellant mother, treating psychiatrists for the parents, two county social workers, the conservator for the parents, the case manager, and a public health nurse. On March 3, 2000, the district court terminated the parental rights of mother and father based upon: (1) palpable unfitness to parent; and (2) failure to correct conditions leading to the CHIPS petition. This appeal followed.
On review of termination of parental rights, an appellate court must consider (1) whether the district court’s findings address the statutory criteria; (2) whether those findings are supported by substantial evidence; and (3) whether those findings are clearly erroneous. In re Welfare of S.Z., 547 N.W.2d 886, 893 (Minn. 1996). The county must prove the grounds for termination by clear and convincing evidence. In re Welfare of M.H., 595 N.W.2d 223, 227 (Minn. App. 1999).
Here, the trial court found two statutory bases for termination: (1) palpable unfitness to parent; and (2) failure to correct conditions leading to the CHIPS determination. See Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1 (b)(4),(5) (Supp. 1999). To establish either ground, the county must also prove that it made “reasonable efforts” to reunite the family and that those efforts failed. Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 8. Once a child has been removed from the home, “reasonable efforts” means “services to eliminate the need for removal and reunite the family.” Minn. Stat. § 260.012(b) (Supp. 1999).
In any termination proceeding, “the best interest of the child must be the paramount consideration.” Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 7 (Supp. 1999). “Where the interests of parent and child conflict, the interests of the child are paramount.” Id.
Palpable unfitness requires a consistent pattern of specific conduct before the child, or specific conditions which: (1) directly relate to the parent and child relationship; and (2) are of a duration or nature that renders the parent unable to care appropriately for the child’s needs for the reasonably reasonable future. Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(4). Mental illness, in and of itself, is not a sufficient basis for termination. S.Z., 547 N.W.2d at 893 (citing In re Welfare of Kidd, 261 N.W.2d 833, 835 (Minn. 1978)). In a situation where a parent is mentally ill, “the actual conduct of the parent is to be evaluated to determine his or her fitness to maintain the parental relationship with the child in question so as to not be detrimental to the child.” Kidd, 261 N.W.2d at 835.
The district court found that father’s: (1) mental health has not stabilized in over a year; (2) delusions continued as recent as 2 weeks before trial; (3) history of failing to take his medications continued; (4) institutionalization continued for almost 11 months; (5) conservatorship continues; (6) mental illness makes him incapable of completing needed chemical-dependency treatment; and (7) violence toward the mother and threatening of others is ongoing. The district court also found that the county made reasonable efforts to stabilize his mental health, but the best interests of the children supported termination, to allow adoption. We conclude that the record supports these findings.
Father claims that the district court did not base its decision on facts as they existed at trial, but instead focused only on his past mental health history. See S.Z., 547 N.W.2d at 893 (findings must be based upon situation as it existed at or about the time of trial). But several of the findings directly relate to the present mental state of father. Also, his past history is important, especially where, as here, father has a history of stopping his medication and his psychiatrist acknowledged that father still lacks insight into the necessity of medication.
Father also claims that respondent presented no evidence that the father’s mental illness has negatively impacted his children. This challenge is unsupported by law and fact. First, the statutory grounds for termination do not require that the palpable unfitness must result in demonstrable harm to the children. Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(4); see, e.g., In re Welfare of A.V., 593 N.W.2d 720, 722 (Minn. App. 1999) (holding disabilities of parents were adequately established without exposing children to inevitable dangers of having children cared for by their parents). Second, the record demonstrates that the father is delusional, violent and cannot grasp the importance of taking medications. This record supports the district court’s conclusion that since the father cannot care for himself on a sustained basis, it follows that he cannot care for a child.
Finally, father claims that termination is not in the “best interests” of the children, as it ignores 10 years of parenting and resulted from a simple mental health setback. But here, where the mental health of father remains unstable, the district court found that termination would allow the children to be placed for adoption in a stable and permanent home, and prevent further out-of-home placements that would likely occur. These findings support that termination is in the “best interests” of the child. Further, under the statute, respondent is required to address permanent placement within one year of out-of-home placement (within six months for children under 8). Minn. Stat. § 260C.201, subd. 11 (Supp. 1999).
The district court found that mother: (1) has been hospitalized 11 times (two as a result of failing to take her medications); (2) is under conservatorship because she was unable to care for her own physical and financial needs; (3) has continuing unstable mental health; (4) is unable to maintain an organized and healthy environment; (5) would need 4 – 8 hours of in-home services per day to assist her with parenting; (6) cannot articulate how to care for the children and deal with emergency situations; and (7) does not have any resources left with which to care for the children. These findings are supported by substantial evidence and are not clearly erroneous.
Mother claims that respondent failed to present evidence relating to mother’s ability to parent, i.e., to recognize the needs of the children and perform mechanical functions of a parent. Most testimony focused on mother’s ability to care for herself. But her ability to care for herself relates directly to her parenting ability. See S.Z., 547 N.W.2d at 894 (“If [father] cannot care for himself on a sustained basis, it follows that he cannot care for a child”). Further, respondent presented testimony that mother could not articulate how to respond to certain emergency situations. The district court credited this testimony. Further, mother continues to have contact with father and expresses her desire to reunite. The record revealed her mental illness does not allow her to appreciate father’s role in the out-of-home placement.
Mother also claims that a psychological evaluation of the children is necessary to show whether termination is in the best interests of the child. This evaluation is not required by statute. The district court found that the best interests of the children were to terminate the parental rights and allow adoption now -- not to allow them to languish in foster care while the parents grapple with their mental health.
Because we find that the evidence is sufficient to support termination on grounds of palpable unfitness, we do not address the other termination ground.