This opinion will be unpublished and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
Filed October 24, 2000
Robert M. A. Johnson, Anoka County Attorney, Marcy S. Crain, Assistant County Attorney, Anoka County Government Center, 2100 Third Avenue, Anoka, MN 55303-2265 (for respondent Anoka County Department of Community Social Services)
Luke R. Stellpflug, Chief Tenth Judicial District Public Defender, Daniel J. Sadowski, Assistant Public Defender, 433 Jackson Street, Anoka, MN 55303 (for respondent child)
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
Mother appeals the district court's decision terminating her parental rights. We affirm.
On June 3, 1997, at age 14, mother gave birth to respondent K.S.K. The following month, Susan Mills, an Anoka County social worker, met with mother and talked with her about various county services available to teen mothers, as well as alternatives to parenting such as adoption. During 1997 and 1998, various county agencies provided or offered mother numerous social services.
Mother was living with her mother, D.K., during this time. D.K. and mother fought over whose responsibility it was to take care of K.S.K. Mother would go out to be with her friends and leave the baby in D.K.'s care, sometimes without telling D.K. she had left. D.K. would only learn mother had gone when D.K. heard the baby crying. At least three times the police removed K.S.K. from mother's custody on 72-hour-holds because mother had left K.S.K. with D.K. when D.K. was unable or unwilling to care for her. In May 1999, after the third such incident, Anoka County filed a child in need of protection or services (CHIPS) petition and a petition to terminate mother's parental rights. The termination of parental rights petition was later withdrawn when mother stipulated to a CHIPS determination.
While the CHIPS and termination of parental rights petitions were pending, the county arranged for mother to have supervised visitation with K.S.K. Mother attended the first visit but did not interact much with K.S.K. She canceled the second visit, explaining that it was hard to see K.S.K. upset at the end of the visit. During June 1999, mother was scheduled for eight visits with K.S.K.; she attended four. In July mother attended all nine scheduled visits.
On August 12, 1999, the court approved a case plan for mother that included her placement along with K.S.K. at Juvenile Horizons, a St. Paul residential program for teen mothers. Mother refused to go, and on September 7, 1999, the court found mother in contempt and ordered that she report to Juvenile Horizons. A few days later, mother did so.
During the first 30 days of the program, mother did well. But even though mother's overall performance in the program was good, mother excessively relied on other Juvenile Horizons residents to take care of and even feed K.S.K. Mother sometimes allowed K.S.K. to wander around without supervision.
After 30 days, she was granted a weekend home visit, from which she returned late. She was disciplined and some privileges were taken away. After that, mother's performance in the program began to deteriorate.
On November 16, 1999, K.S.K. was sick. With permission, mother took K.S.K. to her regular doctor in Anoka. The doctor diagnosed K.S.K. with bronchiolitis and said she should be kept away from other infants and toddlers.
Based on this conversation with her doctor, mother took K.S.K. to D.K.'s house instead of to Juvenile Horizons. D.K. called Juvenile Horizons to explain that her doctor had said K.S.K. should be kept away from other children. Juvenile Horizons staff called the doctor, who said that because it was not practical to quarantine a child with a respiratory virus, K.S.K. could indeed return to Juvenile Horizons, but she should not have direct contact with the other children.
Rebecca Will, of Juvenile Horizons's staff, consulted with mother's social worker, Brenda Lockwood, and the two decided that mother and K.S.K. would have to return by 10 a.m. the next morning or mother would be considered in violation of the court order placing her in the Juvenile Horizons program. Will called D.K.'s house and explained this requirement. Lockwood called D.K.'s house the next morning, and both D.K. and mother said that mother would not bring K.S.K. back to Juvenile Horizons because K.S.K. was sick. Lockwood explained that mother's refusal to return was considered a violation of the court order, and that Lockwood would have to pick up K.S.K. and place her in foster care. Later that day, with the help of two sheriff's deputies, Lockwood did so. On December 29, 1999, Anoka County filed a second petition to terminate mother's parental rights.
After K.S.K. was returned to foster care, the county set up a visitation schedule. Of ten visits scheduled from late November through December 1999, mother missed four. Mother missed all eight visits scheduled in January 2000, but attended all four scheduled visits in February and the two or three visits that were scheduled in March. Again, however, mother did not interact much with K.S.K. during the visits.
Mother's guardian ad litem, K.S.K.'s guardian ad litem, Mills, and Lockwood all testified that in their opinion mother's parental rights should be terminated. After a trial, the district court found that mother's parental rights should be terminated.
"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). We presume 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 interest to be in the natural parent's care. In re Welfare of Clausen, 289 N.W.2d 153, 156 (Minn. 1980).
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). While only one ground need be proven to support termination, the "paramount consideration" in every termination case is the child's best interests. Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subds. 1(b), 7 (Supp. 1999); M.D.O., 462 N.W.2d at 375. Although we give the trial court's findings some deference, we also exercise great caution in termination proceedings and closely inquire into the sufficiency of the evidence to determine whether the evidence is clear and convincing. Id. (citations omitted); see In re Welfare of S.Z., 547 N.W.2d 886, 893 (Minn. 1996) (terms "substantial evidence" and "clear and convincing evidence" used interchangeably). We must determine whether the district court's termination findings address the statutory criteria, whether they are supported by substantial evidence, and whether they are clearly erroneous. M.D.O., 462 N.W.2d at 375.
The district court terminated mother's parental rights on three grounds: that mother was "palpably unfit to be a party to the parent and child relationship," Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(4); "that following the child's placement out of the home, reasonable efforts, under the direction of the court, have failed to correct the conditions leading to the child's placement," id., subd. 1(b)(5); and "that the child is neglected and in foster care." id., subd. 1(b)(8). Because we resolve this case based on the first ground, we do not discuss the other statutory grounds.
The district court may, upon petition, terminate all rights of a parent to a child if it finds
that a parent is palpably unfit to be a party to the parent and child relationship because of a consistent pattern of specific conduct before the child or of 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.
Id., subd. 1(b)(4).
Mother has demonstrated a "a consistent pattern of specific conduct before the child" of failing to properly look after K.S.K. Mother repeatedly left K.S.K. with D.K., sometimes without telling D.K. she was leaving, and sometimes when D.K. was unwilling to care for K.S.K. At Juvenile Horizons, mother often relied on other residents to supervise and feed K.S.K., and mother sometimes left her unattended while she did other things.
Mother also canceled numerous scheduled visits with K.S.K. in foster care, and when she did visit she did not interact well with K.S.K. Such lack of concern for the parent-child relationship and lack of parenting ability also have been held to be evidence of palpable unfitness to be a party to the parent-child relationship. In re Welfare of J.D.L., 522 N.W.2d 364, 368-69 (Minn. App. 1994) (affirming termination of father's parental rights where father had inadequate parenting skills and psychological evaluation showed he lacked motivation to parent). The district court's finding that mother was palpably unfit to be a party to the parent-child relationship is supported by substantial evidence and is not clearly erroneous.
Mother argues that before terminating parental rights, the district court must find that the county has used reasonable efforts to provide rehabilitation or reunification services. Minn. Stat. § 260.012 (a), (c) (Supp. 1999); S.Z., 547 N.W.2d at 892 ("it is clear that provision of reasonable efforts must be evaluated by the court in every case"). Anoka County argues that it has made reasonable efforts with mother, offering
public health nursing services, participation in the WIC health and nutrition program, a self-defense course, a mentoring program, parenting classes through the school, in-home family therapy, supervised visitation, placement at Juvenile Horizons, a parenting evaluation and a psychological evaluation.
"Reasonable efforts" are statutorily defined as
the exercise of due diligence by the responsible social services agency to use appropriate and available services to meet the needs of the child and the child's family in order to prevent removal of the child from the child's family; or upon removal, services to eliminate the need for removal and reunite the family.
Minn. Stat. § 260.012 (b) (Supp. 1999). Initially, we note that the statute appears to be ambiguous whether, when a child has been removed from the parental home, we may consider all services provided to the parent in determining whether the responsible social services agency has made "reasonable efforts," or if we may only consider those services offered or provided after removal. We need not resolve this seeming ambiguity, however, because we hold that whether we consider all services or only post-removal services, the county has made "reasonable efforts" to prevent the separation of this family and to effect its reunification.
As Anoka County notes, it offered or provided mother extensive services before removing K.S.K. from the home. After doing so, it placed mother in a long-term residential program designed to address mother's reluctance to be a full-time parent. Mother refused to return to that program after only two months, even though it was explained to her that her doctor said she could return and that her daughter would be placed in foster care if she did not. The county then arranged a program of supervised visitation, but mother missed more than half the visits and did not interact well with her daughter when she did attend. Under the circumstances, the county was not obligated to make additional efforts.
The county removed K.S.K. from mother's home more than 16 months ago. At the time of this opinion, she is approximately 40 months old. She has therefore spent about 40% of her life in foster care or the Juvenile Horizons program. Long-term foster care "is a highly disfavored disposition for a child under age 12." In re Welfare of J.M., 574 N.W.2d 717, 722 (Minn. 1998). Unfortunately, mother has repeatedly shown that she is either unwilling or unable to devote herself to being a full-time parent. Nothing in this record casts doubt upon the district court's conclusion that this situation "will continue for a prolonged, indeterminate period." Under these circumstances, we cannot disagree with the trial court's conclusion that termination of mother's parental rights is in K.S.K.'s best interests.