This opinion will be unpublished and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 COURT OF APPEALS
In the Matter of the Welfare of:
I.A.Q. and H.A.G., Children.
Filed November 13, 2001
Scott County District Court
File No. 0016899
Thomas J. Harbinson, Scott County Attorney, Susan K. McNellis, Peggy Flaig Hellier, Assistant County Attorneys, Scott County Attorney’s Office, Scott County Government Center, 200 West Fourth Avenue, Shakopee, MN 55379 (for appellant Scott County)
Sharon D. Aizer, Post Office Box 286, Shakopee, MN 55379 (for respondent mother)
Considered and decided by Anderson, Presiding Judge, Foley, Judge, and Forsberg, Judge.*
In this proceeding, the district court denied a petition to terminate mother’s parental rights, finding that the county had failed to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions leading to the children’s out-of-home placement and that termination was not in the children’s best interests. We reverse.
R.Q. is the mother of I.A.Q., born December 2, 1991, and H.A.G., born October 15, 1996. The children’s fathers have not lived with R.Q. and the children. Between 1997 and 2000, Scott County conducted five child protection assessments of the family, four resulting from reports of poor living conditions. A social worker was assigned to the family. In both October 1998 and February 1999, the children were placed in emergency foster care due to their mother’s arrest and detention. In March 1999, I.A.Q. was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from his chaotic home environment. During fall 1999, I.A.Q.’s school district reported excessive unauthorized absences from school.
On December 14, 1999, R.Q. was evicted from her apartment and she and the children stayed at various friends’ homes. Soon thereafter, the case worker again began receiving calls from I.A.Q.’s school because of absences and the fact that they could not locate him or his mother. On January 9, 2000, R.Q. placed H.A.G. with his father, and R.Q. and I.A.Q. moved in with other friends.
On January 13, 2000, the county filed a CHIPS petition on I.A.Q.’s behalf because his education had been interrupted during the prior month. The district court immediately placed I.A.Q. in foster care and ordered that a services plan be developed for R.Q. in an attempt to reunify the family. The service plan remained in effect until the termination trial began in January 2001.
In compliance with the plan, R.Q. underwent a psychological evaluation with a psychologist, Robert L. Peterson, Ph.D. Dr. Peterson diagnosed R.Q. with antisocial personality disorder. This disorder causes inflexible and maladaptive personality traits, which, in turn, causes significant functioning impairment or subjective distress. Those suffering from the disorder place their children at risk for illegal behavior, are pleasure-oriented, disregard the feelings and wishes of their children, are manipulative in attaining their own needs, have poorly developed internal controls that lead to impulsive behavior and an inability to plan ahead, exhibit aggressive behavior, and repeat problem behaviors because of an inability to learn from experience. Personality disorders, such as R.Q.’s, are resistant to change. R.Q. blames others for her problems and exhibits no motivation to change, even through therapy. Dr. Peterson ultimately felt that R.Q.’s mental health issues would prohibit her from resuming a parenting role any time within the “next year or so” from the date of the trial.
Pursuant to the services plan, R.Q. participated in family therapy with psychotherapist Dianne Lindberg, M.S.W., six times between January 2000 and the trial 13 months later. Lindberg established therapeutic goals for R.Q. and testified that R.Q. had made “some progress” in therapy. But R.Q. was unhappy with Lindberg and stopped seeing her in May 2000. After negotiations with the county, R.Q. selected her own therapist in late July 2000, but failed to appear for the first scheduled appointment. R.Q. met with that therapist on only two more occasions.
I.A.Q. has been in foster care and participating in weekly therapy since March 2000. He continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder arising out of his chaotic home environment with R.Q., and has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). I.A.Q. also becomes very anxious when faced with change or a lack of continuity; he responds best to continuity and stability. I.A.Q. needs such an environment to develop and feels secure in his foster parents’ home. H.A.G. was removed from his father’s care in August 2000 and is now in foster care. There are no relatives with which to place the children.
On July 31, 2000, the county filed a petition to terminate R.Q.’s parental rights to I.A.Q. and later amended the petition to include termination of her parental rights to H.A.G. The petition was based on (1) R.Q.’s neglect of her parental duties; (2) R.Q.’s pattern of conduct rendering her palpably unfit to attend to her children’s needs; (3) the failure of reasonable efforts to correct the conditions responsible for the children’s placement outside of the home; and (4) R.Q.’s neglect of the children, subjecting them to placement in foster care. After a three-day trial in January 2001, the district court found that termination was not appropriate because the county had not engaged in “reasonable efforts” to rehabilitate R.Q. and reunite the family, and that termination was not in the children’s best interests. The court ordered both children placed in long-term foster care. This appeal followed.
When a district court’s findings in a termination case are challenged, we are limited to determining whether those findings address the statutory criteria and are supported by substantial evidence. In re Welfare of M.D.O., 462 N.W.2d 370, 375 (Minn. 1990). We may reverse findings that are clearly erroneous. Id. A petitioner must prove one or more of the statutory grounds for termination under Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1 (2000), 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). The “paramount consideration” in every termination case is the child’s best interests. Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 7 (2000).
We are mindful of the rule that “[p]arental rights are terminated only for grave and weighty reasons.” M.D.O., 462 N.W.2d at 375 (citation omitted). We presume that a natural parent is suitable to be entrusted with the care of his or her children and that it is ordinarily in the best interests of the children to be in the care of the natural parent. In re Welfare of Clausen, 289 N.W.2d 153, 156 (Minn. 1980). We exercise “great caution” in termination proceedings, noting that termination is only proper where “the evidence clearly mandates such a result.” In re Welfare of S.Z., 547 N.W.2d 886, 893 (Minn. 1996). This is such a case.
The district court concluded that termination of R.Q.’s parental rights was not merited because it found that the county did not make the “reasonable efforts” required of it to correct the conditions leading to the out-of-home placement. A determination of whether “reasonable efforts” have been made to correct the conditions leading to an out-of-home placement is required before parental rights may be terminated. Minn. Stat. § 260.012(a) (2000).
The services plan drafted on February 3, 2000, required R.Q. to meet seven goals before the children would be returned: (1) secure appropriate housing and remain there for an extended period of time; (2) receive parenting education; (3) schedule an ADHD appointment for I.A.Q.; (4) ensure that I.A.Q. attended school regularly; (5) complete a psychological evaluation and follow recommendations; (6) participate in family therapy; and (7) work with I.A.Q.’s mental health care providers.
Here, the county provided R.Q. with a family assessment, adult mental health care management, a skills training group, individual mental health therapy, family therapy, psychological evaluations, a diagnostic assessment for I.A.Q., children’s mental health case management, child protection case management, transportation services, supervised visitation, in-home assistance, and foster care for the children. R.Q. was also able to obtain housing on her own and resided in an apartment from March through September 2000. Thereafter, in December 2000, when she requested assistance, she was provided with help in obtaining housing. Thus, the evidence shows that the county provided extensive services to assist R.Q. in meeting the goals of her services plan. The district court found that, although the county provided R.Q. with many services, it made “no effort” to assist her in securing affordable housing. But the facts show that R.Q. requested housing assistance only one time and that, when requested, the county provided housing assistance. Furthermore, the record amply demonstrates the trail of wreckage that is R.Q.’s self-imposed housing history.
In July 1997, R.Q. and the children were living in a two-bedroom apartment in Shakopee. Responding to a report of neglectful living conditions, the county investigated and found the home to be in disarray, with clothing strewn about and a kitchen so dirty it created safety concerns. The county authorities concluded that maltreatment had occurred and assigned a social worker to the family.
In October 1998, R.Q. and the children moved to a different apartment in Shakopee. On October 5, local police searched R.Q.’s home pursuant to a search warrant. Two days later, the county filed a CHIPS petition based in part upon photographs showing the filthy living conditions and reports of numerous people moving in and out of the apartment. A county therapist conducted a family assessment on three occasions during October and November 1998 in R.Q.’s home and found it to be very cluttered and containing uncaged pet rats.
In January 1999, R.Q.’s landlord gave her a third warning of eviction for nonpayment of rent, the poor condition of her apartment, and allowing too many people to live in the apartment. R.Q. moved again. On November 5, 1999, the Shakopee police notified the county that, while arresting a suspect in R.Q.’s apartment the day before, they noticed the filthy condition of the home. Both children were present at the time of the arrest of an intoxicated person in possession of a gun. A county social worker sent to the residence the following day noticed that the home was cluttered with clothes, papers, linens, and toys, and contained dirty ashtrays and spilled beer. On December 14, 1999, R.Q. was evicted from that apartment and she and the children were left homeless. Thereafter she and the children stayed at various friends’ homes. On January 9, 2000, R.Q. placed H.A.G. with his father, and she and I.A.Q. moved in with other friends.
In March 2000, shortly after the court-approved case plan was adopted, R.Q. secured a one-bedroom apartment in St. Bonifacius. While there, however, the findings show that she did not maintain a stable household. In May 2000, a police officer executing a search warrant described seeing trash piled on the floor, food stacked open on the counters, moldy food and dog feces on the floor, and clothing lying around in piles. Six months later, on October 1, 2000, R.Q. lost that apartment. From that date and up to the trial date, R.Q. lived in five different residences. When she requested assistance in finding housing in December 2000, the county aided her in obtaining a temporary home.
The evidence shows that the county provided housing services to R.Q. Even had the county supplied less-than-adequate services, the evidence shows that it would have been futile to provide additional services. R.Q.’s lack of progress on the housing front demonstrates the inevitable--that R.Q. will continue in the patterns that led to the out-of-home placement.
In any termination case, we must determine “what action most readily promotes the best interests of the child[ren].” In re Welfare of J.J.B., 390 N.W.2d 274, 280 (Minn. 1986). As noted by Justice Wahl, where the facts and circumstances demonstrate that “it is unconscionable to prolong these proceedings with a remand,” we may terminate parental rights. In re Welfare of C.K., 426 N.W.2d 842 (Minn. 1988) (Wahl, dissenting). We hold that the district court’s decision to deny a petition for termination of parental rights is clearly erroneous. We will not delay termination here where it is otherwise warranted because of a minor inadequacy of county services, especially in light of the showing that every time R.Q. has obtained adequate housing, she fails to maintain it in a healthy manner.
The county contends that R.Q. is palpably unfit as a parent. Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(4), provides, in relevant part, that parental rights may be terminated when
a parent is palpably unfit to be a party to the parent and child relationship because of * * * specific conditions directly relating to the parent and child relationship * * * that renders the parent unable, for the reasonably foreseeable future, to care appropriately for the ongoing physical, mental, or emotional needs of the child.
To order termination of parental rights under this section, the specific conduct or specific conditions must be permanently detrimental to the welfare of the child, must exist at the time of the hearing, and will continue for a prolonged, indefinite period. M.D.O., 462 N.W.2d at 377.
R.Q. is “palpably unfit” because her mental illness, combined with her inability to hold a job, maintain stable housing, and her past criminal acts rendered her unable to care for her children’s needs for the foreseeable future. The district court, however, found that R.Q. was not a palpably unfit parent. In reaching this conclusion, the district court first examined R.Q.’s abilities to parent and found that she understood child growth and development and the parent-child relationship. The court also concluded that, although R.Q. does not respond effectively to treatment, she does respond to monitoring and consequences. The district court relied on the testimony of Dr. Peterson, who stated that R.Q. understands child development, has a positive self-concept as a caregiver, is supportive of her children, and understands her children’s emotional and developmental needs. But nowhere in the record did Dr. Peterson state that R.Q. had the ability, beyond the understanding, to care appropriately for her children or that she would do so in the future.
Relying on Lindberg’s testimony, the district court also found that R.Q. had made “substantial efforts” to complete her services plan. But that finding is not supported by Lindberg’s testimony. Lindberg testified that R.Q. had made “some progress” but did not testify to significant progress in achieving most of the goals of her treatment. While R.Q. completed the required psychological evaluation and participated in parenting education and family therapy, within three months she decided that she wanted a new therapist, and, once she arranged for one, went twice. In light of the fact that she needed “monitoring and consequences” to be an effective parent, her prospects for doing so while not undergoing therapy seem, at best, remote.
Here, evidence that is both substantial and clear and convincing leads us to conclude that R.W. is palpably unfit, and reasonable efforts failed to correct the conditions leading to the out-of-home placement.
The county also contends that reasonable efforts have failed to correct the conditions that led to the out-of-home placement and that R.Q.’s parental rights should be terminated. Parental rights may be terminated when
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.
Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(5).
A presumption exists that reasonable efforts have failed when (1) in more than 12 of the preceding 22 months, the child has resided out of the parental home under court order; (2) a court-approved case plan has been filed; (3) conditions leading to the out-of-home placement have not been corrected; and (4) reasonable efforts have been made by the social services agency to rehabilitate the parent and reunite the family. Id. It is presumed that the offending conditions have not been corrected upon a showing that the parent has not “substantially complied” with the court’s orders or the case plan. “Reasonable efforts” at rehabilitation consist of services that “go beyond mere matters of form so as to include real, genuine assistance.” In re Welfare of H.K., 455 N.W.2d 529, 532 (Minn. App. 1990), review denied (Minn. July 6, 1990).
The district court concluded that the first and second factors have been met and the parties do not contest that fact. But the county challenges the district court’s conclusion that R.Q. “substantially complied” with the services plan. The evidence does not support this conclusion. Of the seven goals set, R.Q. failed to meet the majority. R.Q. did not remain in her housing for an extended time, and, when she did have housing, she failed to maintain it in a healthy and livable manner. She failed to complete her parenting education and did not schedule I.A.Q.’s ADHD appointment. She failed to complete family therapy by discontinuing that therapy with Lindberg after approximately three months and took an additional three months to find a different therapist. In total, she attended eight family sessions in a 12-month period. Relying on Lindberg’s testimony, the district court concluded that R.Q. was making “significant progress” with her therapy. But Lindberg testified that R.Q. was making “some progress”; she did not testify that R.Q. was making “significant progress.” At most, then, R.Q. completed two of the goals and appears to have given up any efforts to complete the others. Less than half compliance does not constitute substantial compliance.
Finally, as discussed previously, the county has made reasonable efforts to assist R.Q. in meeting the goals of her services plan and to attempt to correct the circumstances that led to the out-of-home placement.
Finally, we must consider the best interests of the children, which, as noted, is our “paramount consideration.” Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 7. In termination proceedings, even if one or more of the statutory criteria for termination are met, we are precluded from terminating parental rights unless it is in a child’s best interests to do so. In re Welfare of M.P., 542 N.W.2d 71, 74 (Minn. App. 1996). In determining the best interests of the children, three factors must be taken into consideration: “(1) the child’s interest in preserving the parent-child relationship; (2) the parent’s interest in preserving the parent-child relationship; and (3) any competing interest of the child.” In re Welfare of R.T.B., 492 N.W.2d 1, 4 (Minn. App. 1992). In balancing the factors, the interests of the parents and the children are not necessarily equal. Id.
Here, the district court found that the best interests of the children would not be served by terminating R.Q.’s parenting rights. The district court explicitly found that I.A.Q.’s emotional disorders and learning disabilities were attributable to his chaotic home environment and that he needs a safe, dependable, and predictable environment to flourish. The evidence shows that I.A.Q.’s foster parents provided such an environment and I.A.Q.’s mental health problems, such as anxiety, difficulty in focusing, inability to trust others, adult-type worries, and fear of change were improving. The district court also explicitly found that while living with his foster parents, I.A.Q. slept through the night, ate well, and exhibited good hygiene--traits that were lacking while he lived with his mother. In addition, instead of moving from school to school, I.A.Q. attended the same school where he received special instruction.
While H.A.G. had not undergone a psychological evaluation before trial, the evidence showed that he suffered from the environment in R.Q.’s household. He has improved and will continue to benefit from a stable home environment. Based on the evidence presented at trial, R.Q. cannot provide that type of environment.
In finding that the best interests of the children did not merit termination, the district court relied solely on the possibility that R.Q. might be able to provide the type of environment that I.A.Q. needed. The only support the district court offered for its conclusion was the finding that I.A.Q.’s psychologist “did not rule out” that R.Q. might be able to provide a stable and healthy environment. But I.A.Q.’s psychologist had only treated I.A.Q. and did not know anything about R.Q.’s abilities. The district court’s finding that R.Q. could provide a stable parenting environment is unsupported by this record. The facts show that R.Q. is unable to hold a job for more than a few months at a time and moves often. At oral argument, her attorney did not dispute that R.Q. is planning another move, this time to North Dakota. Thus, the district court’s reliance on the testimony of I.A.Q.’s psychologist is misplaced. In contrast, Dr. Peterson, R.Q.’s mental health care provider, testified that she would not be capable of parenting, at a minimum, for another year.
The evidence overwhelmingly shows that I.A.Q. and H.A.G. have benefited greatly from the stable environment of their foster care placements. There does not appear to be any competent evidence that R.Q. will be able to effectively care for her children in the foreseeable future. In light of their positive development in foster care and R.Q.’s inability to care for her children in the foreseeable future, we conclude the “best interests” of the children are termination of R.Q.’s parental rights. The children deserve a decent chance at a normal life—one R.Q. cannot provide. Not to terminate R.Q.’s parental rights is to postpone the inevitable, but at what cost to these children? Based on this record, we decline to gamble.
Because we reverse the district court’s order denying termination, we need not consider its alleged error in failing to comply with Minn. Stat. § 260C.312 (2000) when it awarded temporary placement.
* Retired judges of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.