This opinion will be unpublished and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 the
Child of: L. F., Parent.
Filed May 21, 2002
Hennepin County District Court
File No. J1-00-054192
Leonardo Castro, Hennepin County Public Defender, Peter W. Gorman, Assistant Public Defender, Suite 200, 317 – 2nd Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55401 (for appellant mother)
Amy Klobuchar, Hennepin County Attorney, Mary M. Lynch, Assistant County Attorney, 525 Portland Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55415 (for respondent)
Alan C. Thiel, Thiel, Campbell, Gunderson & Anderson, 411 Edina Executive Plaza, 5200 Willson Rd., Edina, MN 55424 (for guardian ad litem Elaine Frankowski)
Considered and decided by Klaphake, Presiding Judge, Randall, Judge, and Foley, Judge.
L.F. appeals the district court’s determination that the effects of her mental illness coupled with the special needs of the child rendered termination of her parental rights, pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(2), (4), (5) (Supp. 2001), appropriate. L.F. argues that substantial evidence does not support the finding that termination was appropriate and in the child’s best interests. L.F. also appeals the admission during the termination hearing of exhibits from a previous CHIPS hearing and the admission of testimony of two social service workers. We affirm.
L.F. is the mother and only surviving parent of U.X.F., who was born May 29, 1993, and is currently eight years old. In June 1999, the Hennepin County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) filed a petition to have U.X.F. adjudicated a child in need of protection and services because L.F. was mentally ill, lacked maturity, and neglected U.X.F.’s physical, mental, and emotional needs. Specifically, DCFS pointed out that L.F. suffered from borderline personality disorder and depression so severe that she often needed to be hospitalized, and, during those hospitalizations, U.X.F. was placed in the care of friends, neighbors, family, and foster parents. L.F. also admitted to having thoughts of killing U.X.F. and herself. DCFS noted that L.F. had engaged in inappropriate behavior, including bathing and sleeping with U.X.F, and that L.F. had failed to provide U.X.F. with a clean home and healthy meals.
The district court began a hearing on DCFS’s CHIPS petition in June 1999. The court did not conclude the hearing; it made a finding of probable cause and ordered that U.X.F. be placed with L.F. under the supervision of DCFS. The court ordered L.F. to participate in the Institute for Minority Development (IMD), cooperate with DCFS and allow DCFS access to her home at all times, continue with behavior and individual therapy, and take her medication regularly. Subsequent to the CHIPS hearing, DCFS provided a number of services, including psychiatric care, individual and family therapy, respite care, home management and child-mentoring services, behavior therapy, foster care, and hospitalizations, to help L.F. deal with her mental illness and its effects on her parenting.
In December 1999, the court ordered that U.X.F. be removed from L.F.’s care. U.X.F. was placed in foster care and, with the exception of a brief period in the fall of 2000 when DCFS unsuccessfully attempted to reunite L.F. and U.X.F., has remained in foster care since that time. The unsuccessful reunification attempt lasted only one month and resulted in L.F’s hospitalization.
In March 2000, DCFS filed a petition for termination of L.F.’s parental rights. DCFS alleged that L.F. was palpably unfit to parent; failed to comply with the CHIPS order; and substantially, continuously, and repeatedly neglected to satisfy the duties of the parent-child relationship. IMD also recommended that U.X.F. be removed from L.F.’s care because he did not receive consistent parental guidance and resided in an unsanitary home.
In February and March 2001, the district court held a hearing on DCFS’s petition to terminate L.F.’s parental rights. Over L.F.’s counsel’s objection, the district court admitted into evidence most of the exhibits from the 1999 CHIPS hearing. The district court also admitted into evidence 15 other exhibits that included L.F.’s medical records, DCFS social service records, and Hennepin County services records.
During the hearing, a DCFS child protection social worker testified that L.F. had a tendency to place U.X.F. in the parenting role while L.F. played the role of the child. A DCFS social worker testified that when he visited L.F. in October 2000, the smell from inside the apartment was so severe that he could not meet with her inside. Despite the numerous services that the county had been providing since the CHIPS order in November 1999, L.F. was still having difficulty maintaining a clean home, setting clear boundaries for U.X.F., and treating U.X.F. in an appropriate manner. The social worker testified that terminating L.F.’s parental rights was in the best interests of U.X.F.
A Hennepin County child services social worker, who worked directly with U.X.F., noted that U.X.F. had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), which made him a special needs child. U.X.F., at age seven, was still not toilet trained. This was interpreted as a sign of his need to control his environment. The child services social worker testified that terminating L.F.’s parental rights was in U.X.F.’s best interests.
U.X.F.’s foster mother told the court that L.F. had spoken with U.X.F. about the pending termination proceedings in an inappropriate manner and had told U.X.F. that the foster mother and the DCFS social worker were trying to keep L.F. and U.X.F. apart.
The district court also heard testimony from L.F.’s social worker, her psychiatrist, and a family therapist. These witnesses testified that L.F. was improving in dealing with her mental illness and that L.F. and U.X.F. had a strong, close bond. L.F.’s social worker and the family therapist both opposed termination of L.F.’s parental rights. L.F.’s psychiatrist testified that it would take a “tremendous” amount of resources for her to adequately parent U.X.F., but because he does not treat U.X.F., he had insufficient information upon which to base an opinion on termination.
Finally the guardian ad litem testified that the only way for U.X.F. to have clean clothing, nourishing meals, and a consistent environment was to terminate L.F.’s parental rights. The guardian ad litem stated that despite all the “good will in the world, [L.F.] just didn’t seem to be making it.”
The district court issued an order on June 13, 2001, terminating L.F.’s parental rights. The court found clear and convincing evidence that: (1) L.F. had substantially, continuously, or repeatedly neglected to comply with the duties of the parent-child relationship; (2) L.F. was palpably unfit to be a party to the parent-child relationship; (3) reasonable efforts failed to correct the conditions leading to the termination; and (4) termination of L.F’s parental rights was in U.X.F.’s best interests. The district court based its decision on the effects L.F’s chronic mental illness had on U.X.F.; L.F.’s inability to maintain a basic level of societal function without a great deal of support; her inability to recognize appropriate parent-child communications and to avoid role reversal with U.X.F.; and her failure to provide U.X.F. with a clean home, to ensure his personal hygiene, and to ensure his toilet training.
L.F. appeals, arguing that the record lacks clear and convincing evidence to support termination and to find that termination was in U.X.F.’s best interests. L.F. further alleges that the district court clearly erred by admitting the opinion testimony of the two social workers and taking judicial notice of the CHIPS petition exhibits. We disagree.
On appeal from a district court’s order terminating parental rights, we review whether the district court addressed the statutory criteria, whether the findings are clearly erroneous, and whether the decision to terminate parental rights is supported by substantial evidence. In re Welfare of P.R.L., 622 N.W.2d 538, 543 (Minn. 2001). Although we recognize that “parental rights are terminated only for grave and weighty reasons,” the best interests of the child are the “paramount consideration” of every termination proceeding. Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 7 (2000); In re Welfare of M.D.O., 462 N.W.2d 370, 375 (Minn. 1990) (citation omitted).
Statutory Grounds for Termination
At the hearing, DCFS needed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that termination was warranted under one or more of the factors listed in Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1b. In re Welfare of J.S., 470 N.W.2d 697, 701 (Minn. App. 1991), review denied (Minn. July 24, 1991). Juvenile courts have the authority to terminate parental rights if the court finds
(2) that the parent has substantially, continuously, or repeatedly refused or neglected to comply with the duties imposed upon that parent by the parent and child relationship, including but not limited to providing 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, and either reasonable efforts by the social services agency have failed to correct the conditions that formed the basis of the petition or reasonable efforts would be futile and therefore unreasonable; * * *
(4) 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 * * * ;
(5) 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. It is presumed that reasonable efforts under this clause have failed upon a showing that: * * * (iii) conditions leading to the out-of-home placement have not been corrected. * * * (iv) reasonable efforts have been made by the social services agency to rehabilitate the parent and reunite the family.* * *
Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd 1(b)(2), (4)-(5) (2002). This same statute mandates that when the interests of the parent and the child conflict, the interests of the child control. Id., subd. 7. A court need find only one of the statutory grounds in order to terminate parental rights. P.R.L., 622 N.W.2d at 545.
The evidence supporting termination “must relate to conditions that exist at the time of termination, and it must appear that the conditions giving rise to the termination will continue for a prolonged, indeterminate period.” Id. at 543 (quotation omitted). Mental illness alone is insufficient to support termination, but “the effect of mental illness on the parent’s conduct may indeed meet the statutory criteria.” In re Welfare of A.H., 402 N.W.2d 598, 603 (Minn. App. 1987) (quotation omitted). A district court’s finding that a parent cannot meet the child’s special needs is a factor often considered in terminating parental rights. Id. If the evidence shows that the parent will be able to adequately care for the child within a foreseeable time, then termination is not appropriate. In re Welfare of S.Z., 547 N.W.2d 886, 892 (Minn. 1996).
The evidence shows that L.F. was habitually unable to provide U.X.F. with a clean home, clean clothing, and healthy food so as to maintain an appropriate weight. L.F. frequently needed to be hospitalized to treat her mental illness, and these hospitalizations had a destabilizing effect on U.X.F. L.F. demonstrated an inability to maintain an appropriate parent-child relationship, failed to maintain her medication regime, and did not continually participate in behavior therapy, despite a court order mandating that she do so. Finally, U.X.F. has special needs, which stem from his ADHD, ODD, and past weight problem, that simply are not being met.
L.F.’s psychiatrist testified that L.F. had been improving on dealing with her mental illness, and we commend L.F. on her progress. But the psychiatrist also noted that L.F. could not be a successful parent without tremendous resources from the county, and U.X.F.’s welfare would be jeopardized if these resources were not in place. From the time of the CHIPS order in November 1999 to the termination hearing in February 2001, notwithstanding the support provided by the county, L.F. had been unable to adequately parent U.X.F. and meet his needs. The testimony of the social workers, the foster mother, the psychiatrist, and the guardian ad litem, together with the exhibits introduced at trial documenting L.F.’s extensive medical history, constitute substantial evidence that termination is appropriate on all three of the statutory grounds.
Best Interests of Child
Minnesota courts presume that being in the care of the natural parent is normally in the best interests of the child. In re Welfare of Clausen, 289 N.W.2d 153, 156 (Minn. 1980). When evaluating the best interests of a child, we consider the child’s interest in being in the custody of his natural parent, the parent’s interest in preserving the relationship with the child, and all other circumstances that promote the other interests of the child. A.H., 402 N.W.2d at 602. Although courts should exercise caution in severing the connections of a biological family, it is just as important to avoid merely delaying what has been demonstrated to be inevitable. P.R.L., 622 N.W.2d at 544.
During the hearing, several witnesses acknowledged that L.F. and U.X.F. have a close and strong bond. Despite this, the two social workers and the guardian ad litem recommended that the court terminate L.F.’s parental rights. One of the social workers explained that it is very difficult for U.X.F. to go to school with dirty clothing and without having bathed because of the potential for teasing by other children. The other social worker explained that, since being placed in foster care, U.X.F. has demonstrated an ability to form attachments with other adults. The guardian ad litem recommended termination because she was concerned that the role reversal was having a negative impact on U.X.F. and his development. L.F. admitted to using U.X.F. as a “grounding point,” and the guardian ad litem stated that L.F. was using U.X.F. as a “therapeutic instrument” for her mental illness. The guardian ad litem stated, “[U.X.F.] needs to be solving his seven-year-old problems, not to be solving his mother’s adult problems.”
The county recognized the importance of an attempted reunification of L.F. and U.X.F. in the fall of 2000. DCFS had been providing several mental health and parenting skills services prior to and during the attempted reunification. Despite these services, the reunification failed. L.F. had to be re-hospitalized, which caused a great deal of disruption for U.X.F. Based on the failed reunification attempt and the continued failure to correct the deficiencies noted in the original CHIPS petition, we agree with the district court’s finding that remaining in his mother’s care is not in U.X.F.’s best interests. Again, we applaud L.F. for the progress she has made in dealing with her mental illness, but we must treat U.X.F.’s interests as the paramount consideration. To reverse the district court on this issue would be merely delaying the inevitable.
Based upon our review of this evidence, we find that the district court adequately addressed the statutory factors and did not clearly err in making any factual findings. Substantial evidence supports the district court’s decision to terminate L.F.’s parental rights because she repeatedly neglected her parental duties, she engaged in a pattern of specific conduct that made her unable to adequately care for U.X.F’s needs in the reasonably foreseeable future, and reasonable efforts failed to correct the conditions leading to the earlier CHIPS petition. Further, substantial evidence supports the district court’s determination that termination of L.F.’s parental rights is in U.X.F.’s best interests. We affirm.
On appeal, L.F. also argues that the district court erred by admitting opinion testimony from the two social workers who stated that termination was in U.X.F.’s best interests and by taking judicial notice of and admitting into evidence the majority of the exhibits from the CHIPS hearing.
The issue of whether to admit or exclude evidence is within the district court’s discretion; we review it under an abuse of discretion standard. Kroning v. State Farm Auto. Ins. Co., 567 N.W.2d 42, 45-46 (Minn. 1997). An evidentiary error will not provide the basis for a new trial unless prejudice is shown. Uselman v. Uselman, 464 N.W.2d 130, 138 (Minn. 1990).
Admission of Opinion Testimony
Before making a disposition in a case, terminating parental rights, or appointing a guardian for a child, the court may consider any report or recommendation made by the responsible social services agency, * * *, guardian ad litem, * * *, or other authorized advocate for the child or child’s family, * * *, or any other information deemed material by the court.
Minn. Stat. § 260C.193, subd. 2 (Supp. 2001); see also In re Welfare of L.P.C., 367 N.W.2d 908, 911 (Minn. App. 1985) (relying partly on predecessor to Minn. Stat. § 260C.193 (Minn. Stat. § 260.181 (1984)), to uphold district court’s admission of recommendations in two psychologists’ reports). Further, Minn. R. Evid. 701 provides that lay witness opinion testimony is admissible if it is rationally based on the witness’s perception and helpful to the determination of a fact in issue.
The social workers that testified at the termination hearing were employed by DCFS and Hennepin County, and their recommendations represented those of the “responsible social services agency” under Minn. Stat. § 260C.193, subd. 2. The district court had statutory authority to consider their recommendations. Further, their recommendations were rationally based on their perceptions of L.F.’s ability to parent and U.X.F.’s needs, and were helpful in resolving the factual issues involved in addressing U.X.F.’s best interests. The district court did not abuse its discretion by admitting the testimony of the two social workers.
Judicial Notice and Admission of Exhibits from CHIPS Hearing
A court is permitted to take judicial notice of prior court orders, records, and files. Minn. R. Juv. P. 39.02, subd. 3; Clausen, 289 N.W.2d at 156-57. But this court has noted that “the discretion of the court * * * is proscribed by the rule that any affected person is entitled to notice that identifies the portions of the record that the court will consider in determining adjudicative facts in the case.” In re Welfare of D.J.N., 568 N.W.2d 170, 174 (Minn. App. 1997) (citation omitted) (noting that purpose of notice requirement is to give affected party opportunity to refute implications of record and to object to facts as being subject to reasonable dispute). In order to support a claim that a new trial is warranted, the party on appeal must show that the admission of the prior court records and files was prejudicial. Id. at 176.
It is undisputed that the district court admitted the exhibits from the CHIPS hearing without notice to L.F. or her counsel. Nevertheless, L.F. has failed to show that any prejudice resulted. The CHIPS exhibits constituted only one piece of evidence in a voluminous record, including sixteen exhibits and five days of witness testimony. In deciding to terminate L.F.’s parental rights, the district court relied almost exclusively on the other exhibits and the testimony of witnesses at the termination hearing. Although the district court erred by failing to give L.F. notice of the admission of the CHIPS exhibits, there was no prejudice.
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.