This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).







In Re the Matter of:

LeRoy Gielen, Jr.,






Stacy Lyn Haight,




Filed April 1, 2003

Forsberg, Judge


Benton County District Court

File No. F30050191



Richard W. Curott, Curott & Associates, P.O. Box 206, Milaca, MN 56353 (for respondent)


David W. Buchin, Buchin Law Office, 16 North Ninth Avenue, St. Cloud, MN 56303 (for appellant)


            Considered and decided by Minge, Presiding Judge, Hudson, Judge, and Forsberg, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N


            In this custody dispute, appellant challenges the district court’s award of sole physical custody of the parties’ children to respondent, arguing that (1) the district court ignored positive information about appellant, (2) the district court failed to adequately consider appellant’s role as the primary caretaker, and (3) several of the court’s findings of fact were erroneous.  We affirm.


            Appellant Stacy Haight and respondent LeRoy Gielen were never married but lived together for several years.  During the course of their relationship, the parties had three children, K.G., born June 19, 1997, and S.G. and A.G., born October 10, 1998.  The children lived with the parties until they separated in March of 2000.

            By court order dated May 10, 2000, joint legal custody of the children was granted to the parties and temporary sole physical custody was granted to appellant, subject to extensive parenting time for respondent.  The matter then proceeded to the evidentiary hearing. 

            According to evidence presented at the hearing, the parties’ relationship was tumultuous at best, with both parties testifying that they argued a great deal while they were together.  During their relationship, appellant stayed at home with the children while respondent worked as a self-employed painter.  During her testimony, appellant acknowledged being chemically dependent and that she pleaded guilty to fifth-degree assault of respondent.  Prior to the hearing, appellant completed chemical dependency treatment and anger management classes.  Nonetheless, the district court granted sole physical custody of the children to respondent.  Appellant now challenges the district court’s grant of physical custody to respondent.


            A district court has broad discretion to provide for the custody of the parties’ children.  Durkin v. Hinich, 442 N.W.2d 148, 151 (Minn. 1989); Rutten v. Rutten, 347 N.W.2d 47, 50 (Minn. 1984).  An appellate court’s review of a custody determination is limited to whether the district court abused its discretion by making findings unsupported by the evidence or by improperly applying the law.  Silbaugh v. Silbaugh, 543 N.W.2d 639, 641 (Minn. 1996); Pikula v. Pikula, 374 N.W.2d 705, 710 (Minn. 1985).

            A district court’s custody determination must be in the “best interests of the child.”  See Minn. Stat. § 518.17, subd. 1(a) (2002).  And a district court must consider all relevant factors, including the 13 factors provided in section 518.17, subdivision 1(a), in determining the child’s best interests.  Id.  But “[t]he court may not use one factor to the exclusion of all others.”  Id.  Nonetheless, the law currently “leaves scant if any room for an appellate court to question the trial court’s balancing of best-interests considerations.”  Vangsness v. Vangsness, 607 N.W.2d 468, 477 (Minn. App. 2000).


            Appellant argues that the district court “improperly ignored all negative facts about Respondent and ignored all positive facts about Appellant.”  We disagree. 

The record shows that the court gave adequate credit to appellant for the improvements she has made.  The court recognized that appellant “has been working diligently in improving her shortcomings,” namely her anger problems and bad language.  The court also stated that appellant “clearly loves the children, and she has undertaken to learn and change her parenting patterns and to stay sober and clean.  She is making good-faith efforts to change * * * .”  But it is undisputed that appellant was using drugs on a daily basis while the children were in her care and that she assaulted respondent in the presence of the children. 

            Moreover, except for appellant’s testimony, the testimony regarding respondent was positive.  The only concern the guardian ad litem had regarding respondent was that he had not been substantially involved in the children’s medical care.  On the other hand, the guardian had the following concerns regarding appellant:  (1) her drug use in the presence of the children; (2) her lack of control over the children; (3) the appearance and cleanliness of her home; and (4) her questionable parenting techniques.  Therefore, the court did not improperly ignore positive evidence about appellant and ignore negative facts about respondent. 


            Appellant also argues that the district court did not give adequate consideration to the fact that she was the children’s primary caretaker, even though the court recognized in its findings of fact that appellant “has been the primary caretaker for the children.”  The court also stated that both parties “have provided for the physical needs of the children in the past and both are capable of providing for their future physical needs.” 

            The court properly recognized appellant’s role as the primary caretaker and acknowledged that both parties were capable of providing the children’s future care.  Moreover, Minn. Stat. § 518.17, subd. 1(a), prohibits the court from using the primary caretaker factor as a presumption for who should be awarded custody.  Thus, the district court did not abuse its discretion in its consideration of appellant as the primary caretaker.


            Appellant’s final argument consists of several challenges to the court’s findings of fact.

            A.         Children’s Adjustment to Home, School, and Community

            The district court found that the children were too young to have any significant contacts with the community where they lived with appellant.  At the time of the evidentiary hearing, K.G. was five years old and S.G. and A.G. were three years old.  The court’s finding is not clearly erroneous.  None of the children were in school and there was no evidence that they had trouble adjusting to the home of either parent.

            B.         Disruption of Daily Routine


            Appellant argues that the court failed to acknowledge that moving the children would cause significant disruption in their daily routine.  Appellant’s argument lacks merit.

            The court’s findings are consistent with the evidence presented at the hearing that appellant lacked a routine in her home.  Respondent testified that when the children were in his care, they sometimes napped for four to five hours, indicating to respondent that the children were exhausted and not sleeping regular hours while in appellant’s home.  The guardian ad litem’s report stated that appellant has difficulty getting the children to do what she asks.  Additionally, one of the guardian’s main concerns was whether appellant is capable of parenting the children “in a consistent and appropriate manner.”  Moreover, immediately prior to the hearing, the children were spending most of their time in daycare because appellant was working two jobs from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. 

Because the children did not have a substantial daily routine while living with appellant, the district court’s failure to include a finding regarding disruption to their routine was not clearly erroneous.

            C.        Cleanliness of Appellant’s Home

            The district court found that, “[a]t points in the past, [appellant’s] housekeeping of the trailer home has been inadequate, with there routinely being dirty dishes, unwashed clothes and leftover food in the home.”  This finding is not clearly erroneous because it was based on the guardian ad litem’s report and the Benton County police report. 

            The guardian observed that, “[d]espite assistance from the Village and Benton County Human Services[,] I did not see [appellant] as having improved dramatically in [the area of home maintenance].”  Additionally, appellant admitted to keeping a messy home.  Thus, the court’s finding regarding the condition of appellant’s home was not clearly erroneous.

            D.        Children’s Adjustment to Respondent’s Home

            Appellant points out that the district court incorrectly found that the home respondent currently lives in was the same home that the children lived in prior to moving out with appellant.  In fact, respondent moved into a new home in February of 2002, a ten-acre hobby farm. 

Where the record as a whole is sufficient to support the decision, error in any one of the findings not affecting the result is harmless error and immaterial to the decision on appeal.  Rosendahl, et al. v. Nelson, et al., 408 N.W.2d 609, 612 (Minn. App. 1987) (citation omitted), review denied (Minn. Sept. 18, 1987). Thus, because the district court’s error is harmless, we will ignore it.  See Minn. R. Civ. P. 61 (court shall ignore harmless error).  The erroneous finding has no effect on the court’s other findings that respondent is capable of providing the more stable environment for the children.  Moreover, the record indicates that the children are well-adjusted to respondent’s household and his parenting style. 

            E.         Failure to Address S.G.’s Special Needs

Appellant argues that the district court failed to address how awarding custody to respondent might affect S.G.’s ongoing special needs.  To the contrary, the court specifically addressed S.G.’s special needs in the findings of fact.  The district court also found that appellant interfered with respondent’s participation in S.G.’s therapy.  The court further stated that appellant has failed to adequately communicate to respondent the changes in S.G.’s diet and the success areas of his therapy.  None of these findings by the court are clearly erroneous. 

Respondent testified that appellant threatened him with a restraining order if he continued to be involved in S.G.’s therapy.  The court clearly found respondent to be the more credible witness, stating:

[Appellant’s] credibility has been damaged by her lies to the guardian ad litem about her using drugs, by her denial of the practice of putting a child in her room and locking the door from the outside, and by her tendency to hedge and obfuscate on some of the tough personal questions about her past behavior.


Judging the credibility of witnesses is left to the district court.  Hasnudeen v. Onan Corp., 552 N.W.2d 555, 557 (Minn. 1996).  Therefore, the district court adequately addressed S.G.’s special needs and none of the findings related to S.G.’s care were clearly erroneous.

            F.         Focus on Appellant’s Chemical Dependency

            Appellant argues that the district court improperly placed too much weight on the chemical dependency issue.  We disagree.

            Appellant has a 20-year history of drug abuse, has relapsed after treatment in the past, and has used drugs in the presence of her children.  Moreover, appellant testified that she does not attend AA meetings weekly, does not have a sponsor, and does not have a regular AA meeting that she attends, even though attending AA was a recommendation of her treatment program.  Additionally, appellant does not appear to challenge the accuracy of any of the findings associated with her chemical dependency.  Thus, the weight the district court gave to appellant’s chemical dependency was appropriate.


* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.