This opinion will be unpublished and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:
D.P., L.W. III, and J.W., Minor Children.
Filed August 1, 2002
Kandiyohi County District Court
File Nos. J30150094 & J80150415
Andrew Laufers, 506 2nd Street W., Madison, MN 56256 (for appellant Nate Manning)
Thomas A. Jones, Thomas Jones Law Office, P.O. Box 1051, Willmar, MN 56201 (for appellant S.P.)
Boyd Beccue, Kandiyohi County Attorney, John Kallestad, Deborah Smith, Assistant County Attorneys, 316 Southwest Fourth Street, Willmar, MN 56201 (for respondent county)
William Bannon, Johnson & Bannon, 2125 First Street South, Willmar, MN 56201 (guardian ad litem)
Considered and decided by Harten, Presiding Judge, Willis, Judge, and Foley, Judge.*
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
In consolidated appeals, appellant-mother and appellant-father challenge the district court’s termination of their parental rights. Because the district court’s findings address the statutory criteria for terminating parental rights and because clear and convincing evidence supports those findings, we affirm.
Appellant S.P. is the biological mother of D.P., L.W. III, and J.W. Appellant Nate Manning is the biological father of D.P., and nonparty Louis Walker II is the biological father of L.W. III and J.W. In August 1999, mother was arrested for aiding and abetting arson; she helped to set a fire on the first floor of an apartment building while her children slept in a third-floor apartment in the same building. The children, then ages 2 years, 11 months, and 15 days, were placed in foster care in Willmar. Mother pleaded guilty to the arson charge and was sentenced to a 44-month prison term. The children were adjudicated in need of protection or services in November 1999, and a guardian ad litem was appointed for them.
In March 2000, Kandiyohi County Family Services (county) filed petitions to terminate mother’s parental rights to D.P., L.W. III, and J.W. and Manning’s parental rights to D.P. The district court denied the petitions, ordering that the children remain temporarily in the care of their foster parents and that the county develop out-of-home placement plans to reunify the parents with their children. Mother’s reunification with the children was to occur as soon as mother was “released from prison and in a housing arrangement that permits her to care for her children.”
Mother left prison early pursuant to a work-release program and moved into a halfway house. In February 2001, the county petitioned for the second time to terminate mother’s parental rights to D.P., L.W. III, and J.W. and Manning’s parental rights to D.P. D.P.’s paternal grandmother intervened, seeking placement and custody of all three children with her; the county completed a study of her home, but placement there was denied. Following trial, the district court terminated mother’s and Manning’s parental rights. This appeal follows.
D E C I S I O N
A district court may terminate parental rights only if it is proved by clear and convincing evidence that at least one statutory ground for termination exists. See In re Welfare of J.M., 574 N.W.2d 717, 724 (Minn. 1998); Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b) (2000 & Supp. 2001) (providing statutory grounds for termination). When reviewing a district court’s findings in a termination proceeding, this court is “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). Although some deference is given to the district court’s findings, this court exercises great caution and “will closely inquire into the sufficiency of the evidence to determine whether the evidence is clear and convincing.” In re Welfare of A.H., 402 N.W.2d 598, 603 (Minn. App. 1987) (quotation omitted).
A court may terminate parental rights on, inter alia, one or more of the following statutory grounds:
(1)that the parent has abandoned the child;
(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 * * * ;
(3)that [the] parent has been ordered to contribute to the support of the child or financially aid in the child’s birth and has continuously failed to do so without good cause * * * ;
(4)that [the] parent is palpably unfit to be a party to the parent and child relationship * * * ; [or]
(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.
Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b). The party petitioning for termination has the burden of proving 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). “The child’s best interests, however, remain the paramount consideration in every termination case.” In re Welfare of L.A.F., 554 N.W.2d 393, 397 (Minn. 1996) (quotation omitted).
The district court terminated mother’s parental rights on the ground that she is palpably unfit to parent her children. See Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(4).
[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.
Mother argues that the county did not prove by clear and convincing evidence that she is palpably unfit to parent because the county failed to show that she would not be able to care for her children for the foreseeable future. But this court has held that a parent’s failure to complete goals set forth in an out-of-home placement plan constitutes clear and convincing evidence that conditions on which the termination petition was based will continue for a prolonged and indeterminate time. See In re Welfare of H.K., 455 N.W.2d 529, 533 (Minn. App. 1990) (holding that appellant’s “unwillingness to complete any of the goals of her placement plan” supported district court’s decision to terminate parental rights), review denied (Minn. July 6, 1990).
Mother contends that she has substantially complied with the placement plans for her children; that her incarceration, not abuse or neglect, made out-of-home placement necessary for her children; and that the evidence that the district court relied on in making its determination was outdated. Mother argues that if she had taken advantage of opportunities to visit her children when she was in Willmar for court hearings, the visits would have affected her ability to meet the minimum 32-hour-per-week work requirement of her work-release program and that, because she will soon complete work release, her failure to take advantage of those visitation opportunities “cannot be a predictor of the foreseeable future.”
Mother admits, however, that she did not comply with placement-plan provisions that required her to telephone her children twice each week so that they could hear her voice and to write and send drawings to each child twice each month. She contends that she is too busy to write to the children more than she has been writing to them, and:
It would be appalling for [the] failure to write as many letters or make as many phone calls as the county arbitrarily required to be deemed sufficient reason to terminate her parental rights. These minor failures simply cannot constitute the “grave and weighty” reasons required for such a serious and final determination.
But D.P., L.W. III, and J.W. have been in foster care for more than two years; they were ages 2 years, 11 months, and 15 days at the time of placement. The county did not “arbitrarily” require a certain level of contact with the children; it appears that it designed the out-of-home placement plans to facilitate parent-child bonding between mother and the children.
According to the placement plans, the children’s foster parents were to bring the children to see mother twice each month at the prison. But mother canceled visits with her children and ended visits early. The children’s foster mother testified that mother canceled one visit because “she wanted to wash clothes that day” and that she canceled another visit even though she had not seen the children for almost three weeks. A representative of the county testified that, on one occasion, after her early release from prison, mother lied when she said that she could not visit the children because she had to return to the work-release program. While in Willmar for court proceedings, mother canceled yet another visit after she became angry with the prison staff.
Mother failed to provide her work schedule to the county or to the children’s foster mother to facilitate scheduling visits. And once mother completes the work-release program, she has no plans to live in Willmar, where her children live. Moreover, a representative of the county testified that, at the time of trial, mother was not working with a psychotherapist, as required by the placement plans.
The evidence shows that mother did not substantially comply with the placement plans, and the reasons that mother offered for her actions showed that she consistently placed her needs above the needs of her children. Mother’s failure to substantially comply with the placement plans is clear and convincing evidence that she is palpably unfit to care for her children for the reasonably foreseeable future.
Mother argues that the district court failed to explain its rationale for its determination that terminating her parental rights was in the children’s best interests. Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 7 (2000), provides that “[i]n any [termination] proceeding * * * , the best interests of the child must be the paramount consideration.” Once a district court determines that at least one statutory ground exists for termination, it must consider the best interests of the children. In re Welfare of L.A.F., 554 N.W.2d at 399; In re Welfare of M.P., 542 N.W.2d 71, 74 (Minn. App. 1996).
Mother contends that the district court’s “conclusory statement” that “[t]he best interests of the three children support the termination of their mother’s * * * parental rights to permit a stable, permanent placement of the [children]” is an inadequate best-interests analysis that compels this court to reverse the termination of her parental rights. She argues that the district court’s findings fail to overcome the presumption that it ordinarily is in children’s best interests to be in the custody of their natural parents. See In re Welfare of M.H., 595 N.W.2d 223, 227 (Minn. App. 1999) (noting presumption that natural parent is fit and suitable to be entrusted with care of child and that it is ordinarily in best interests of child to be in custody of natural parent).
The children were ages 2 years, 11 months, and 15 days when they were placed in foster care; they have bonded with their foster parents. But the relationship between mother and the children’s foster mother has deteriorated to the point that mother admits that they no longer speak to one another. The district court found that, under the circumstances, it would be “highly improbable, if not impossible” that mother could work effectively with the children’s foster parents to ensure a smooth transition during the reunification process.
The district court also noted that medical experts who assessed mother’s parental capacity testified that, under the circumstances, it would be “extremely difficult” to reunite mother with the children and that removing the children from their current placement would harm them. Substantial evidence supported the district court’s findings and the findings supported its conclusion that terminating mother’s parental rights serves the children’s best interests.
Mother argues that the district court clearly erred by finding that the county made reasonable efforts to reunite her and her children. A court cannot terminate parental rights on the ground that a parent is palpably unfit unless it first determines that reasonable reunification efforts were made. Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 8 (2000 & Supp. 2001); see also In re Welfare of D.T.J., 554 N.W.2d 104, 108 (Minn. App. 1996).
“Reasonable efforts” means 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) (2000 & Supp. 2001).
To determine whether a social-services agency, here the county, made reasonable efforts, a district court must consider whether the services available to the family were:
(1) relevant to the safety and protection of the child;
(2)adequate to meet the needs of the child and family;
(4)available and accessible;
(5)consistent and timely; and
(6) realistic under the circumstances.
Minn. Stat. § 260.012(c) (2000).
Mother argues that the district court’s findings do not reflect consideration of all the statutory factors. She claims that the evidence on which the court relied is outdated and that the county did not make reasonable efforts to make D.P.’s special-education and L.W. III and J.W.’s early-childhood family-education programs more accessible to her. Mother claims that the county’s efforts to assist her were weak, “probably because [her] former social worker * * * had decided * * * that she wanted the children to live with [their foster parents].” Mother and her children are African American; she also contends that the only effort to provide her with culturally appropriate services was the district court’s order requiring that an African-American psychologist evaluate her parental capacity.
But mother fails to identify which statutory factors the findings do not reflect and what culturally appropriate services she needed but did not receive. The district court found that the county provided mother with (1) foster care for her children; (2) transportation for visits every two weeks; (3) writing materials and postage; (4) developmental assessments of the children; (5) appropriate services for D.P., who is developmentally delayed; (6) a parenting assessment and recommendations for self-improvement; (7) a relative search; (8) evaluation of D.P.’s paternal grandmother’s home as a potential relative placement; (9) scheduling of visitations at the prison in conjunction with court appearances; (10) access to a telephone for telephone calls; (11) information about housing and case-management services; and (12) recommendations regarding classes available at the prison. The record supports those findings, and the findings support the district court’s conclusion that the county made reasonable efforts to reunify mother with her children.
The district court terminated Manning’s parental rights to D.P. on the grounds that (1) he abandoned D.P.; (2) he “substantially and continuously” refused to comply with his parental duties; (3) he failed without good cause to contribute to D.P.’s support; (4) he is “palpably unfit” to parent D.P.; and (5) following D.P.’s out-of-home placement, the county’s reasonable efforts failed to correct the conditions leading to D.P.’s placement.
Manning argues that sufficient evidence does not support the district court’s determination that he abandoned D.P. Abandonment requires “both actual desertion of the child and an intention to forsake the duties of parenthood.” In re Welfare of L.A.F., 554 N.W.2d at 398. But a court may presume abandonment when
the parent has had no contact with the child on a regular basis and not demonstrated consistent interest in the child’s well-being for six months and the social services agency has made reasonable efforts to facilitate contact, unless the parent establishes extreme financial or physical hardship or treatment for mental disability or chemical dependency or other good cause prevented the parent from making contact with the child.
Manning also claims that the county did not make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that led to D.P.’s out-of-home placement because the county did not provide him with transportation to Willmar to visit D.P. and because the county “never suggested plans to help [him] find and pay for a suitable home.” He cites no legal authority for the proposition that “reasonable efforts” means that the county must provide him with transportation or help him find and pay for a home. See Minn. R. Civ. App. P. 128.02, subd. 1(d) (providing that briefs must include citations to legal authorities). Manning does not otherwise dispute the district court’s determination that the county provided him with services that were relevant, adequate, culturally appropriate, available and accessible, consistent and timely, and realistic, as Minn. Stat. § 260.012(c) requires.
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.