This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In the Matter of the Child of C.K.
St. Louis County District Court
File No. J0-99-150728
Todd E. Deal, 230 First Street South, Suite 106, P.O. Box 1253, Virginia, MN 55792 (for appellant mother)
Alan L. Mitchell, St. Louis County Attorney, 100 North 5th Avenue West, #501, Duluth, MN 55802; and
Mark M. Starr, Assistant St. Louis County Attorney, 300 South 5th Avenue, Room 222, Virginia, MN 55792 (for respondent St. Louis County)
Considered and decided by Willis, Presiding Judge, Crippen, Judge, and Holtan, Judge.
On appeal from the trial court’s order terminating her parental rights to son E.A.K., appellant mother C.K. argues that the trial court’s order must be reversed because (1) the trial court erroneously concluded that she is palpably unfit to be a parent; (2) the trial court erred in finding that respondent St. Louis County made reasonable efforts to reunite her with her son E.A.K.; and (3) the trial court erroneously concluded that it is in the best interests of E.A.K. that C.K.’s parental rights be terminated. We affirm.
In September 1994, C.K. suffered a stroke and aneurysm that resulted in her having physical and mental difficulties. In September 1998, Debbie Lawrence, a St. Louis County social worker, was assigned to investigate a referral alleging that C.K. was living with her two minor sons, G.K. and J.F., in an unkempt apartment, that C.K. was of questionable mental health, and that she had been emotionally abusive to her children. Due to the condition of C.K.’s apartment, her sons were removed from the home and placed in foster care with relatives. J.F. was placed with his father, and G.K. was placed with his maternal aunt.
Following the filing of a petition alleging that the children were in need of protection or services (CHIPS petition), the juvenile court found that J.F. and G.K. were in need of protection or services. As a result of the CHIPS proceeding, the juvenile court entered an order designed to unite C.K. with her children, which required C.K. to maintain a clean, safe, and healthy home environment and to participate in a complete psychological evaluation and follow recommendations for ongoing services.
As part of the psychological evaluation, C.K. was examined by Dr. Jonathan Speare, a licensed psychologist, who attempted to do an MMPI, but the validity scale supported the view that she had an idiosyncratic approach to the test. Dr. Speare concluded that this might be interpreted as reflecting C.K’s low self-esteem and psychotic-appearing thought process. He also stated that the MMPI might have been impacted by what he hypothesized to be a neurological impairment resulting from the stroke and aneurysm, and he referred C.K. to the Polinsky Rehabilitation Center in Duluth.
C.K. underwent a neuro-psychological evaluation by the rehabilitation division of the Polinsky Institute. The evaluation diagnosed C.K. as having (1) status post aneurysm; (2) significant focal cognitive decline secondary to a neurological condition; and (3) depressive disorder secondary to medical condition, mild to moderate range. C.K. was subsequently evaluated by Dr. Edward Martinson, who noted that she had suffered an aneurysm in the right temporal region of her brain and that she had a somewhat paranoid personality. It was recommended that C.K. continue to take prescribed medications and that she become involved in the cognitive retraining program at the Polinsky Institute.
C.K. completed the cognitive retraining program with Todd Heggestad. A discharge summary signed by Heggestad noted that C.K’s attendance for the therapy sessions was good, with no missed appointments or cancellations. But Heggestad concluded that C.K. continued to have a problem with criticism and feedback and that her overall condition was
much the same at the conclusion of the therapy with the benefits provided likely to be seen in the area of incorporation of a memory notebook as a daily habit to assist with reminders as well as helping her with emotional reactivity. Certainly difficulties with distractibility, appropriateness of decision making, as well as the multitude of psychosocial issues present with her continue to influence and affect her daily functioning.
Heggestad recommended that C.K. receive additional psychiatric care, receive long-term psychological counseling, and continue to take medications to control her distractibility and thoughts.
At the same time, St. Louis County offered C.K. intensive family-based services that were designed to provide her with counseling and effective parenting skills. C.K. met one to two times a week with Michelle Rolandson, a social service specialist, from January through May 1999. Also, St. Louis County offered C.K. homemaker services, but these services were cancelled when C.K. had many no-shows and cancellations.
In June 1999, Rolandson began having a very difficult time reaching C.K., and there was a period of approximately three months in which C.K. did not have any meetings with social services. On September 13, 1999, Rolandson was finally able to meet with C.K., and C.K. agreed to have a few more sessions and then to wrap up the program. But on September 16, 1999, C.K. gave birth to a baby boy, E.A.K.
Hospital staff reported that C.K. was filthy when she arrived at the hospital to deliver E.A.K. On that same day, St. Louis County filed a petition alleging that E.A.K. was a child in need of protection and services, and the district court issued an order granting St. Louis County immediate temporary custody. C.K. had not advised her social worker or any of the people that were providing services to her about her condition. During her pregnancy, C.K. received no prenatal care and was on a psychotropic medication that was potentially dangerous for the unborn E.A.K. Following his birth, E.A.K. has experienced numerous medical problems.
Rolandson decided to terminate the programs that were being offered to C.K. because she had concerns about C.K.’s honesty and what would happen thereafter. In the conclusion section of her report, Rolandson stated that C.K. has ongoing cognitive difficulties that prevent her from being an effective parent.
On October 19, 1999, St. Louis County filed a petition seeking to terminate C.K.’s parental rights to E.A.K. on the ground that C.K. was palpably unfit to parent E.A.K. St. Louis County also contended that it had made reasonable efforts to reunite C.K. with her older children on a prior CHIPS file, that such efforts were unsuccessful, and that the record of the file constituted prima facie evidence that further services for the purpose of reunification with E.A.K. would be futile.
Following a two-day trial, the district court issued an order terminating the parental rights of C.K. to E.A.K., concluding that pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(4) (1998), the parental rights of C.K. should be terminated because she is palpably unfit to be a party to the parent-child relationship because of a consistent pattern of specific conditions directly relating to the parent-child relationship that will be of a duration or nature rendering her unable, for the reasonably foreseeable future, to care appropriately for the ongoing physical, mental, or emotional needs of the child. In support of its conclusion to terminate C.K.’s parental rights to E.A.K., the trial court found: (1) C.K. suffers from cognitive limitations and these limitations contributed to her inability to provide proper care for her two older children; (2) reasonable efforts by social services to reunite C.K. and her two older children had been made and had led to no significant improvement in her ability to parent the two older children, and there was no reasonable likelihood that the older children would be reunified with C.K. in the foreseeable future; (3) the provision of services for purposes of reunification of C.K. and E.A.K. would be futile and unreasonable under the circumstances; and (4) it was in E.A.K.’s best interests that the parental rights of C.K. be terminated.
D E C I S I O N
“Parental rights are terminated only for grave and weighty reasons.” In re Welfare of M.D.O., 462 N.W.2d 370, 375 (Minn. 1990). There is a presumption that the natural parent is suitable to be entrusted with the care of his or her child and that it is in the child’s best interests to be in the natural parent’s care. In re Welfare of Clausen, 289 N.W.2d 153, 156 (Minn. 1980).
The legislature has established nine criteria that support termination of parental rights. Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b) (Supp. 1999). While only one criterion needs to be proven to support termination, the “paramount consideration” in every termination case is the child’s best interests. Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 7 (Supp. 1999). The party petitioning for termination must prove one or more of the statutory grounds by clear and convincing evidence. In re Welfare of J.S., 470 N.W.2d 697, 701 (Minn. App. 1991), review denied (Minn. July 24, 1991). A district court must make “clear and specific” findings that conform to the statutory requirements. In re Welfare of Chosa, 290 N.W.2d 766, 769 (Minn. 1980).
Reviewing courts determine whether the district court’s termination findings address the statutory criteria, whether the findings are supported by substantial evidence, and whether the findings are clearly erroneous. M.D.O., 462 N.W.2d at 375. In other words, although some deference is given to the district court’s findings, a reviewing court exercises great caution and closely inquires into the sufficiency of the evidence when determining whether it is clear and convincing. See In re Welfare of A.H., 402 N.W.2d 598, 603 (Minn. App. 1987).
A parent’s rights cannot be terminated solely due to his or her mental retardation or illness. In re Welfare of J.J.B., 390 N.W.2d 274, 281 (Minn. 1986). If, however, the mental illness or other mental or emotional disability precludes the parent from providing proper parental care, the statutory requirement for termination has been met. Id.
1. Palpably Unfit to Parent
C.K. argues that the trial court’s conclusion that she is palpably unfit to parent due to her cognitive limitations is clearly erroneous and not supported by substantial evidence.
Under the palpable-unfitness section, the very nature of the parent’s condition may allow for termination. See In re Welfare of Kidd, 261 N.W.2d 833, 835-36 (Minn. 1978) (finding a parent’s chronic mental illness, which detrimentally affected the child, was proper basis for termination). “A palpably unfit parent is the antithesis of a capable parent.” In re Welfare of S.Z., 536 N.W.2d 37, 39 (Minn. App. 1995), aff’d, 547 N.W.2d 886 (Minn. 1996). A finding of palpable unfitness is appropriate when there is a
consistent pattern of specific conduct before the child or specific conditions directly relating to the parent and child relationship either of which are determined by the court to be of a duration or nature that renders the parent unable, for the reasonably foreseeable future, to care appropriately for the ongoing physical, mental, or emotional needs of the child.
Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(4).
Mental illness, in and of itself, cannot justify the termination of parental rights. Kidd, 261 N.W.2d at 836. But a mental-health condition may support termination if it renders the parent unable to recognize the child’s needs and limitations or to perform “mechanical functions of a parent.” In re Welfare of N.C.K., 411 N.W.2d 577, 580 (Minn. App. 1987). The county need not demonstrate actual harm to the child; a showing of conduct likely to be detrimental to the child’s physical or mental health is sufficient. Kidd, 261 N.W.2d at 836.
Here, the record demonstrates and the trial court found that in 1998, C.K.’s two older boys were placed in foster care because C.K.’s apartment was dirty, unsanitary, and entirely uninhabitable. Dr. Edward Martinson diagnosed C.K. as suffering from cognitive dysfunction with some paranoid personality. Following completion of a cognitive-retraining program at the Polinsky Institute, Todd Heggestad, a licensed psychologist, concluded that C.K. “would appear to be much the same at the conclusion of the therapy” and that C.K. continued to have difficulties with distractibility, appropriateness of decisionmaking, as well as a multitude of psycho-social issues that reduced her ability to function on a day-to-day basis. He recommended that C.K. continue to participate in long-term counseling to deal with the cognitive issues arising from her stroke. But Marianne Borgstrom testified that she had spoken to C.K. several times about these recommendations and was never able to verify whether C.K. was seeking treatment or whether she was on any type of medication. Simultaneously, in order to address C.K.’s need for parenting instruction and help with her homemaking skills, C.K. was ordered to cooperate with a homemaker and to participate in an intensive family-based services program. Michelle Rolandson testified that she spent more time with C.K. than she usually would with a client because she had concerns whether C.K. was absorbing the material. Marianne Borgstrom testified that the homemaker services were not successful and that C.K. had many no-shows and cancellations. Michelle Rolandson cancelled the family-based service program after C.K. gave birth to E.A.K. Despite the services that were offered to her, C.K. never informed social services that she was pregnant and did not receive any prenatal care. In the conclusion section of her report, Rolandson stated that C.K. has
some cognitive difficulties that have prevented her from learning and practicing new, more effective ways of parenting to any significant degree. [C.K.’s] sons have a high level of frustration and anger with their mother’s communication patterns [and probably other issues]. [C.K.] would need to make major changes in the way she parents her sons before there would be much improvement in the disrespect problem. She still needs to work on improving her communication patterns. With [C.K.’s] cognitive difficulties, the prognosis for major changes for her is somewhat poor. It has been very difficult for the parent educator and I to determine how much of the information we have given [C.K.] has been retained by her.
Additionally, Borgstrom testified that as of September 1999, C.K. was not any closer to having her boys returned to her than she had been approximately one year previously. Borgstrom also testified that she did not believe that C.K. could appropriately care for E.A.K.’s ongoing physical, emotional, or mental needs. When asked why, she stated:
There’s numerous things, but I guess the last year and a half that I have worked with her, my concern with her psychological functioning and her cognitive deficits that can’t be fixed. Probably number one, her inability to parent the two older children in an effective way makes me believe that a new baby who is more vulnerable than the two older ones and needs high amount of care, that is very concerning to me.
Her failure to inform any one that she was pregnant, and I don’t know that she was taking those medications or not. But if she was, just her failure not to inform the doctor who prescribed them, as to what kind of affects that could have on the unborn child. That’s a huge concern that she put that baby in jeopardy.
They wouldn’t let her breast feed at the hospital because of those--the drugs that she had been prescribed, because it--that baby couldn’t ingest the breast milk so it just leads me to believe that--I don’t know. And I guess just probably inability to be able to change. And the services, intensive family based services, the parenting, she may have been given the material, and [C.K.] could state to you that she maybe learned something, but in actually putting those things to use, I don’t feel that she absorbed--absorbed the material.
And I guess mostly, probably the second reason is, I believe it’s very important to find that baby a permanent home where he can thrive.
Therefore, after a careful review of the evidence in the record, we conclude that there is substantial evidence to support the trial court’s determination that termination of C.K.’s parental rights to E.A.K. was warranted under Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(4) (the “parent is palpably unfit to be a party to the parent and child relationship”).
2. Reasonable Efforts to Reunite
C.K. also asserts that the trial court’s finding that St. Louis County social services made reasonable efforts to reunite E.A.K. with her children is not supported by substantial evidence and is clearly erroneous. C.K. claims that while some efforts were made to reunite her with her two older children, no effort was made to reunite her with E.A.K. C.K. contends that because the trial court did not make a finding that St. Louis County made reasonable reunification efforts specific to her and E.A.K., this omission requires reversal of her termination of parental rights. We disagree.
In In re Welfare S.Z., 547 N.W.2d 886, 892 (Minn. 1996), the supreme court concluded:
The [Juvenile Court] Act requires the evaluation of reasonable efforts to prevent removal of the child from the child’s family and to reunite the child with the child’s family in all termination of parental rights cases pursuant to section [260C.301, subd. 1(b)(4)]. * * * Section [260C.001, subd. 3(1)] describes the purpose of the Act to include ensuring that reasonable efforts have been made by the social service agency to reunite the child with the child’s parents in a placement that is safe and permanent. Section [260.012(c)] specifically states that the court shall make findings regarding the provision of reasonable efforts in proceedings under section [260C.301]. It does not limit findings on reasonable efforts to certain subsections of section [260C.301]. When these statutory provisions are considered together with the inherent difficulty of permitting the agency seeking termination also to deny rehabilitative services, it is clear that provision of reasonable efforts must be evaluated by the court in every case.
The court must make the determination of reasonableness. In some cases, any provision of services or further provision of services would be futile, and therefore unreasonable. This determination of reasonableness must be made by the court on the basis of the factors set out in Minn. Stat. § 260.012, and one of those factors is whether services are realistic under the circumstances. We conclude that when parental rights are terminated because the parent is palpably unfit to be a party to the parent and child relationship, the Act requires that the court make the determination of whether reasonable efforts have been make to rehabilitate the parent and to reunite the family, even if that determination is that provision of services for the purpose of rehabilitation is not realistic under the circumstances.
Additionally, Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 8 (Supp. 1999), provides:
In any proceeding under this section, the court shall make specific findings:
(1) regarding the nature and extent of efforts made by the social service agency to rehabilitate the parent and reunite the family; or
(2) that reasonable efforts at reunification are not required as provided under section 260.012.
Here, the trial court complied with Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 8, by finding that the “provision of services or further services for the purpose of reunification of [mother] and [E.A.K.] would be futile and unreasonable under the circumstances.” Additionally, the trial court found that although social services had provided reasonable efforts to reunite C.K. with her two older children, these services had not led to any significant improvement in C.K.’s ability to parent the children and that there was no reasonable likelihood that the children would be returned to C.K. in the foreseeable future. Moreover, the trial court’s findings were supported by substantial evidence in the record, which demonstrates that although St. Louis County provided C.K. with several reasonable services and programs intended to reunite her with her two older boys, she was no closer to having custody of her two older boys at the time of trial than she was when the children were removed from her custody in September 1998.
3. Best Interests of the Child
Lastly, C.K. contends that it is not in E.A.K.’s best interests to terminate her parental rights because she is a fit and suitable person to be entrusted with his care.
The paramount consideration in all proceedings for the termination of parental rights is the best interests of the child. Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 7 (Supp. 1999). Because a child’s best interests are the paramount consideration in proceedings to terminate parental rights, the trial court is precluded from terminating parental rights where the record does not show that termination is in the child’s best interests, even if one or more of the statutory prerequisites for termination exist. In re Welfare of M.P., 542 N.W.2d 71, 74 (Minn. App. 1996). Therefore, the trial court’s findings in a termination case must address whether termination is in a child’s best interests and, if so, explain the trial court’s rationale for reaching that conclusion. Id. at 74-75.
Here, substantial evidence supports the trial court’s determination that termination of C.K.’s parental rights is in E.A.K.’s best interests. The trial court found and the record reflects that (1) termination of C.K.’s parental rights is in E.A.K.’s best interests based on C.K.’s inability to care for E.A.K. and the importance of finding a safe and stable home, and (2) E.A.K. has special needs that would certainly exceed the care that C.K.’s older boys require, and that because C.K. was not able to care for the needs of her older boys, she would not be able to adequately care for a young baby, such as E.A.K. Moreover, the trial court’s findings note that Borgstrom testified that E.A.K. needs special care because of numerous medical problems and that she did not believe that C.K. would be able to appropriately care for E.A.K.’s ongoing physical, emotional, or mental needs.
After a careful review of the record, we conclude that the trial court’s findings address the statutory criteria and are supported by substantial evidence. While we are sympathetic to C.K.’s concern regarding the social services agency’s dual role of exploring reunification of the family while simultaneously petitioning to terminate her parental rights, the trial court did not err in terminating C.K.’s parental rights to E.A.K.
* Retired judge of the district court, serving as judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.