This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
In the Matter of the Welfare of: L.R.C.
Filed February 27, 2001
St. Louis County District Court
File No. J1-00-650081
Todd E. Deal, 230 First Street South, Suite 106, P.O. Box 1253, Virginia, MN 55792 (for appellant)
Alan L. Mitchell, Joanne Vavrosky, St. Louis County Attorney’s Office, 403 Government Services Center, 320 West Second Street, Duluth, MN 55802 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Crippen, Presiding Judge, Harten, Judge, and Hanson, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
Appellant V.C. challenges the termination of her parental rights to her daughter, L.R.C. Specifically, appellant claims that the trial court erred in finding that (1) she failed to comply with her parental duties and was palpably unfit, (2) social services made reasonable efforts to reunite her with L.R.C. and that further efforts would be futile and (3) it was in L.R.C.’s best interest to terminate appellant’s parental rights. We affirm.
Appellant has had seven children, and the involvement of each with St. Louis County Social Services is extensive. Five of appellant’s other children had been removed from her custody prior to this proceeding. In July 1976, appellant’s oldest son, then one year old, was placed in foster care because of appellant’s drinking. In March 1978, when appellant’s second son was only one month old, both boys were voluntarily placed in foster care when she was jailed for aggravated assault and burglary. The boys were once again removed from appellant’s custody three months after they were returned to her because the babysitter was drunk and appellant could not be found. In June 1979, the boys were once again removed from the home because they were found alone in the home. Since 1981, they have resided in foster care.
In February 1983, appellant gave birth to her first daughter, N.C., and in May 1984, to J.C., her third son. From the summer of 1984 until May 31, 1989, when appellant’s parental rights to N.C. and J.C. were terminated, the children were in and out of foster care.
In late 1987, appellant gave birth to a daughter, A.C., and when A.C. was four months old, appellant left her with an elderly man whom the police officers believed was incompetent to take care of an infant. A.C. was removed from appellant’s care, and her parental rights to A.C were eventually terminated.
Appellant gave birth to a fourth son, D.A., on January 27, 1991. D.A. has special needs—he is developmentally disabled, essentially bed or wheelchair bound, nonverbal and must be fed through a feeding tube. In the early 1990s, D.A. was removed from appellant’s home, but was returned in 1995. Appellant cared for D.A. with the help of personal care attendants who provided care seven hours a day at appellant’s home.
The child involved in this proceeding, L.R.C., was born on August 15, 1997. She was just over two years old when the incidents giving rise to this proceeding occurred. On December 1, 1999, one of the personal caretakers was in the house looking after D.A. L.R.C. was also at home. Appellant left home in the early afternoon and visited several bars. She returned at 10 p.m. and asked the caretaker to baby sit for both children so that she could go out again. The caretaker refused to do so and prepared to leave. After the caretaker left, appellant locked the children in the house and left.
The caretaker sensed something “really awful” was about to happen and returned to the home. Through the window, she could see L.R.C. sitting in front of the television. She knocked on the door and, when no one answered, she called the police. One of the officers broke the plexiglass window on the back door and entered the home. D.A. was taken to a hospital and L.R.C. was placed in shelter care. When appellant returned home, she was too drunk to realize that her children were gone. When she woke up and realized that the kids were not in the home, she called the home care agency and swore at them.
After the children were removed from appellant’s home, her social worker, James Morrison, recommended that appellant abstain from alcohol, submit to random urinalysis testing and refrain from verbally abusing caretakers or other providers to her children. Initially, he told her that if she successfully complied with these recommendations, he would support reunification with the children. While appellant complied with Morrison’s recommendations, Morrison changed his mind after additional facts came to his attention. There was evidence that appellant had been abusive to L.R.C. L.R.C.’s foster mother was concerned by L.R.C.’s aggressive behavior towards other children and sexualized conduct with her dolls. L.R.C. was assessed by a child therapist and was diagnosed with global developmental delays, suspected child abuse, reactive attachment traits and adjustment disorder with mixed disturbance of emotions and conduct. Based on this information, Morrison advocated for termination of appellant’s parental rights, rather than reunification.
A termination of parental rights hearing was conducted and on June 28, 2000, the trial court issued its findings of fact, conclusions of law and order terminating appellant’s parental rights. This appeal followed.
Appellant claims that the trial court erred in terminating her parental rights to L.R.C. “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) (citation omitted). 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 interest 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. See Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b) (2000). 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 (2000). 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. J.S., 470 N.W.2d at 701. 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. In re Welfare of A.H., 402 N.W.2d 598, 603 (Minn. App. 1987).
The trial court found that appellant failed to comply with her parental duties pursuant to § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(2), and was palpably unfit pursuant to § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(4). Either of these alternative grounds for termination would be sufficient.
A. Failure to Comply with Her Parental Duties
Appellant claims that the trial court’s conclusion that she failed to comply with her parental duties is clearly erroneous. Under § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(2), a court may terminate a parent’s rights to a child if it finds that the parent has “substantially, continuously, or repeatedly refused or neglected” parental duties, the “parent is physically and financially able, and *** reasonable efforts by the social service agency have failed to correct the conditions that formedthe basis of the [termination] petition.” Termination under subdivision 1(b)(2) is appropriate “if it reasonably appears that the condition of dependency or neglect will continue for a prolonged, indeterminate period.” In re Welfare of J.J.B., 390 N.W.2d 274, 278 (Minn. 1986).
Some of the duties imposed upon a parent are:
[p]roviding the child with necessary food, clothing, shelter, education, and other care and control necessary for the child’s physical, mental, or emotional health and development, if the parent is physically and financially able.
Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(2). There is evidence that appellant was not providing L.R.C. with the care and control necessary for the child’s physical and mental development. When L.R.C. was removed from appellant’s home, she could not speak more than ten words and was one year behind in speech and motor skills. She could not jump, hop or run. She was aggressive with other children and displayed sexualized behavior with dolls. In addition, there was evidence that appellant was at times abusive to L.R.C.
While appellant has undergone chemical dependency treatment and has been sober for several months, there is no reasonable assurance that her past behavior will not continue. See J.J.B., 390 N.W.2d at 278 (stating that termination of parental rights is appropriate where it appears that the neglect will continue for a prolonged and indeterminate period of time). Rather, appellant’s neglectful conduct and her 20-year history with alcoholism, that has resulted in appellant losing custody of all her other children, supports the trial court’s finding that appellant has “substantially, continuously, or repeatedly refused or neglected” her parental duties. That finding is not clearly erroneous.
B. Palpably Unfit
Appellant also claims that the trial court’s conclusion that she is palpably unfit is clearly erroneous. Section 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(4) provides that parental rights may be terminated if the parent is found to be palpably unfit. This section further provides that
[i]t is presumed that a parent is palpably unfit to be a party to the parent and child relationship upon a showing that the parent’s parental rights to one or more other children were involuntarily terminated.
Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(4). Because appellant’s parental rights to three of her children have been involuntarily terminated, she is presumed to be palpably unfit and has the burden of rebutting this presumption.
A finding of palpable unfitness is appropriate when there is 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.
Minn. Stat § 260.221, subd. 1(b)(4). The trial court found that appellant has been an alcoholic for over twenty years and suffers from borderline personality disorder. Because appellant’s alcoholism and mental disorder have prevented her from properly parenting her children for the past twenty years, and appellant failed to show that this condition would change within the foreseeable future, we conclude that the trial court’s finding that appellant is palpably unfit is supported by substantial evidence and is not clearly erroneous. In re Welfare of L.A.F., 554 N.W.2d 393, 396 (Minn. 1996) (stating that considerable deference is given to the district court because they are in the best position to determine witness credibility).
Appellant claims that the county did not make reasonable efforts to reunite her with L.R.C., arguing that the trial court erred in not considering her compliance with the case plan proposed by Morrison.
A parent’s rights can be terminated if reasonable efforts by social services have failed to correct the conditions that led to the child’s out-of-home placement or if reasonable efforts would be futile and therefore unreasonable. Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(2). However, “[r]easonable efforts for rehabilitation and reunification are not required upon a determination by the court that * * * the parental rights of the parent to another child have been terminated involuntarily.” Minn. Stat. § 260.012(a)(1)(ii) (2000). Such was the case here.
Further, the county was under no legal obligation to follow through with any alleged case plan. In order for a case plan to be effective, it must be written and the terms and conditions for the return of the child must be filed with the court. Minn. Stat. § 260C.212, subd. 1 (e) (2000). While appellant acknowledges that Morrison’s recommendations did not meet the statutory requirements, she claims that it was fundamentally unfair to deny her the opportunity to be reunited with L.R.C. because she had satisfied all of his recommended conditions. However, Morrison did not create a case plan, but merely recommended what appellant should do to increase her chances of regaining custody of her daughter.
Given appellant’s history, we conclude that the trial court’s determination that further efforts would be futile is supported by substantial evidence on the record and is not clearly erroneous. See In re Welfare of J.K., 374 N.W.2d 463, 466 (Minn. App. 1985) (stating that termination of the mother’s parental rights was not clearly erroneous despite minimal evidence that she has shown some improvement immediately before termination hearing).
Appellant challenges the trial court’s determination that termination of appellant’s parental rights is in L.R.C.’s best interest. 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 of the statutory prerequisites for termination exist. In re Welfare of M.P., 542 N.W.2d 71, 74-75 (Minn. App. 1996).
In any proceeding under this section, the best interests of the child must be the paramount consideration, provided that the conditions in subdivision 1, clause (a), or at least one condition in subdivision 1, clause (b), are found by the court. * * * Where the interests of parent and child conflict, the interests of the child are paramount.
Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 7.
In analyzing the best interests of the child, the trial court must balance the child's interest in preserving the parent-child relationship, the parent's interest in preserving the parent-child relationship, and any competing interest of the child, such as stable environment, health considerations and the child's preferences. In re Welfare of R.T.B., 492 N.W.2d 1, 4 (Minn. App. 1992).
The trial court found that, based on appellant’s “long history of difficulties” and the “apparent problems being experienced by the child,” it is in the best interest of L.R.C. that appellant’s parental rights be terminated. Moreover, the evidence shows that appellant had not created a constructive parent-child relationship with L.R.C. Id. (in analyzing what is in the best interest of the child, the trial court must consider whether the child has an interest in preserving the parent-child relationship). Accordingly, we conclude that the trial court’s finding that it is in L.R.C.’s best interest to terminate appellant’s parental rights was supported by substantial evidence and was not clearly erroneous.