This opinion will be unpublished and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.B.
Filed April 23, 2002
Ramsey County District Court
File No. J299553760
Robert J. Lawton, 1100 West Seventh Street, St. Paul, MN 55102 (for appellant)
Susan Gaertner, Ramsey County Attorney, Christine A. Reardon, Assistant Ramsey County Attorney, 50 West Kellogg Blvd., Suite 315, St. Paul, MN 55102 (for respondent)
Paul W. Bergstrom, 25 West Seventh Street, St. Paul, MN 55102 (for guardian ad litem)
Wright S. Walling, Walling & Berg, 121 South Eighth Street, Suite 1550, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for intervenor foster parents)
Considered and decided by Stoneburner, Presiding Judge, Harten, Judge, and Anderson, Judge.
G. BARRY ANDERSON, Judge.
The Ramsey County Community Human Services Department (respondent) filed a child-in-need-of-protective-services (CHIPS) petition on August 23, 1999, alleging that appellant-mother could not provide a safe home for I.B. for a variety of reasons including undiagnosed mental health issues. On October 18, 1999, the district court transferred temporary legal custody to respondent. A termination-of-parental-rights petition (TPR) was filed on December 16, 1999, pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subds. 1(b)(2), (4), (5) & (8) (1998).
Following trial, the district court terminated appellant’s parental rights. Because we conclude that the district court made the necessary findings supported by substantial evidence, and those findings are not clearly erroneous, we affirm.
I.B. was placed into foster care based on a voluntary placement soon after birth. The Ramsey County Special Needs Protection Unit was assigned to the case on referral from a treating physician, who questioned appellant’s ability to perform simple childcare functions. Appellant has significant intellectual limitations including an IQ of less than 80. The doctor suggested joint placement, but no suitable joint placement opportunities existed.
Soon after I.B. was placed in foster care, a CHIPS petition was filed. Appellant admitted the petition. A case plan was prepared by a case manager, Susan Barthel, and was signed by appellant on September 16, 1999. The case manager testified that appellant had problems with: understanding expiration dates on food, preparation of formula, focusing on I.B. while she was with him, paranoia, suicidal statements, self-injurious behavior, and housekeeping. The housekeeping at appellant’s apartment became such an issue that visitation appointments could not be held there. There were also childproofing issues because appellant’s home was not safe for an infant.
In December 1999, appellant was sent to see Dietrah Hiatt, MSW on a twice-weekly basis. Appellant attended approximately two-thirds of these appointments.
Appellant participated in a program called Parent-Child Development Institute (PCDI) in January 2000. But she was released from PCDI because of significant mental health issues. After PCDI, appellant had a Nekton worker assigned to her to provide services on demand, and started in Genesis II, a parenting education and therapy program. After release from PCDI, appellant was allowed home visitation with I.B., but very minimal improvement was observed in their relationship and interactions. Therefore, visits were moved to the Genesis II program to help improve those interactions and decrease appellant’s anxiety. Appellant stayed in the Genesis II program until December 2000. The Genesis II program recommended two more years of services for appellant, including a whole-family foster placement. But appellant had already been through every other available parenting-support service and her case manager testified that placing appellant in whole-family foster care would not be appropriate given her “multiple issues.” The case manager had made formal requests for joint placement, but these requests had not been successful because of appellant’s special issues.
Appellant’s case manager was replaced after a settlement agreement was reached in November 2000. Appellant’s new case manager testified that one of the conditions of the settlement agreement was counseling, and appellant missed approximately one-third of her appointments.
The new case manager observed that appellant was continuing to have problems controlling her emotions, even after counseling, and tantrums remained a problem. Nancy Marden, the assigned Nekton worker, confirmed the tantrums, which included throwing phone books and screaming at the worker. Several of the case aides and workers were also concerned over appellant’s lack of focus on I.B.’s physical needs during visitation. Appellant’s case aide was concerned with the manner in which appellant handled I.B.
Appellant was eventually placed in a joint foster home pursuant to the formal joint-placement request. The joint foster home would have been a joint foster home for both appellant and I.B., but I.B. was never placed there because respondent could not provide the 24-hour monitoring that was necessary. Appellant also stopped attending counseling sessions after May 2001.
A trial was held during the summer of 2001, and the district court terminated appellant’s parental rights. This appeal followed.
A district court may terminate parental rights if the petitioning party proves by clear and convincing evidence that at least one statutory ground for termination exists. In re Welfare of D.D.K., 376 N.W.2d 717, 720 (Minn. App. 1985). The statutory criteria are found in Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1 (2000). The court must also find that termination would be in the child’s best interests. Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 7; In re Welfare of S.Z., 547 N.W.2d 886, 893 (Minn. 1996).
When a trial court’s findings in a termination case are challenged, appellate courts are limited to determining whether the findings address the statutory criteria, whether those findings are supported by substantial evidence, and whether they are clearly erroneous.
In re Welfare of D.D.G., 558 N.W.2d 481, 484 (Minn. 1997) (citation omitted).
On review, “[c]onsiderable deference is due to the district court’s decision because a district court is in a superior position to assess the credibility of witnesses.” In re Welfare of L.A.F., 554 N.W.2d 393, 396 (Minn. 1996) (citation omitted). We “closely inquire into the sufficiency of the evidence to determine whether it was clear and convincing.” In re Welfare of J.M., 574 N.W.2d 717, 724 (Minn. 1998) (citation omitted). “This court exercises great caution in termination proceedings, finding such action proper only when the evidence clearly mandates such a result.” In re Welfare of S.Z., 547 N.W.2d at 893 (citation omitted).
The two statutory grounds for termination at issue here are (1) palpable unfitness to parent, under Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(4); and (2) failure to correct the conditions leading to the CHIPS adjudication under Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(5).
1. Palpable Unfitness to Parent
Parental rights may be terminated on a showing
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.
Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(4).
A number of reasons were given by the district court supporting the conclusion that appellant is palpably unfit to parent I.B. The reasons, all supported by the record, included: (1) appellant’s unwillingness to address her anger, which is a result of physical and sexual abuse suffered by appellant, combined with appellant’s lack of a positive parental role model; (2) appellant’s overall mental health, including paranoia, anxiety, and explosive temper; (3) the high probability that appellant could not meet the daily demands of parenting an infant; (4) that after nine months of parenting education, appellant had not developed the skills necessary to parent I.B.; (5) that it is reasonably foreseeable that appellant would not continue to attend parenting classes although the professionals involved believed this was required; (6) appellant’s lack of housekeeping skills and the inability to clean and otherwise prepare her home for I.B.’s visits; (7) incidents where I.B.’s safety was at issue due to appellant’s inattention; (8) appellant’s limited intellectual skills; and (9) I.B.’s physical problems that require more than ordinary care.
There is clear and convincing evidence supporting the district court’s conclusion that appellant is palpably unfit to parent I.B. Therefore, the district court’s conclusion was supported by substantial evidence and its findings were not clearly erroneous.
2. Failure to Correct the Conditions Leading to the CHIPS Adjudication
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).
It is presumed that reasonable efforts have failed when (1) during more than 12 of the preceding 22 months, the child has resided outside of the parental home under court order; (2) a court-approved case plan has been filed; (3) the conditions leading to the out-of-home placement have not been corrected; and (4) the social-services agency has made reasonable efforts to rehabilitate the parent and reunite the family. Id. at subd. 1(b)(5)(i-iv). It is presumed that the offending conditions have not been corrected on a showing that the parent has not “substantially complied” with the court’s orders or the case plan. Id. at subd. 1(b)(5)(iii). “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) (citation omitted), review denied (Minn. July 6, 1990).
The district court made several findings that support its conclusion that reasonable efforts have failed to correct the conditions that led to I.B.’s placement. Those findings included: (1) I.B. has been in foster care continuously since he was one month old, for a total of over two years; (2) appellant signed a case plan on September 16, 1999; (3) little, if any, improvement in parenting skills had occurred; and (4) respondent made reasonable efforts to reunite I.B. and appellant because there are no available programs or services that have not already been tried that would enable appellant to reunite with I.B. This last finding is supported by the testimony at the hearing, which recounted the numerous programs and social workers that have been afforded appellant including Nekton, Genesis II, PCDI, multiple evaluations, two case workers, and a case aide. These services constitute “genuine assistance.” In re Welfare of H.K., 455 N.W.2d at 532. Furthermore, appellant has failed to substantially comply with her case plan by, among other things, failing to attend meetings. Therefore, the district court’s conclusion that reasonable efforts have failed to cure the conditions leading to I.B.’s out-of-home placement is supported by clear and convincing evidence and its findings are not clearly erroneous.
3. I.B.’s Best Interests
Even if one or more of the statutory criteria for termination are met, parental rights cannot be terminated unless it is in the child’s best interests to do so. In re Welfare of M.P., 542 N.W.2d 71, 74 (Minn. App. 1996). A district court must balance three factors when analyzing the best interests of the child: (1) the child’s interest in maintaining the parent-child relationship; (2) the parent’s interest in maintaining 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).
The district court specifically found that reunification was not in I.B.’s best interests. This finding is supported by the record because of the significant threat to his safety created by appellant’s lack of improvement in parenting skills and inattention to I.B.’s needs.
An appellate court may not reverse a trial court due to mere disagreement with its findings. Rather, we will reverse a lower court’s findings of fact only when those findings are clearly erroneous. Findings of fact are considered clearly erroneous only if they are not reasonably supported by the evidence.
Fletcher v. St. Paul Pioneer Press, 589 N.W.2d 96, 102 (Minn. 1999) (citing Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01). A finding is “clearly erroneous” if the reviewing court is “left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.” Id. at 101 (quotation omitted). When determining whether findings are clearly erroneous, we view the record “in the light most favorable to the court’s findings.” Lossing v. Lossing, 403 N.W.2d 688, 690 (Minn. App. 1987).
Appellant specifically challenges the finding of fact which states, “There are no available programs or services that would enable [appellant] to adequately parent [I.B.] in the reasonably foreseeable future.”
Appellant claims that a joint foster home placement would allow her to learn to parent I.B. Appellant’s argument is without merit. First, the district court found that a joint foster care home placement is difficult, if not impossible, to find. Furthermore, an attempt to place appellant in such a home was made when appellant was placed at the Rucker home. While appellant moved into the Rucker foster home, I.B. was never placed there because respondent could not provide the required 24-hour supervision necessary due to appellant’s special needs. Although a joint foster home placement was attempted, it failed. There are no programs or services that would lead to reunification in the reasonably foreseeable future. Therefore, the district court’s finding was not clearly erroneous.