This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In the Matter of the Welfare of:
S. T. S. A.
Ramsey County District Court
File No. J401552482
Robert J. Lawton, 1100 West Seventh Street, St. Paul, MN 55102 (for appellant)
Susan Gaertner, Ramsey County Attorney, Heather McCleery, Assistant County Attorney, Ramsey County Government Center, 50 West Kellogg Boulevard, Suite 315, St. Paul, MN 55102-1657; and
Margaret L. Gustafson, Baker Court, Suite 305, 821 Raymond Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55114 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Shumaker, Presiding Judge, Randall, Judge, and Wright, Judge.
Appellant-father M.A. challenges the termination of his parental rights to S.T.S.A., arguing that the district court’s findings are not supported by the record. We affirm.
S.T.S.A., born on April 21, 2000, has Cornelia de Lange syndrome, a rare congenital disorder that causes, among other problems, gastrointestinal dysfunction. As a result, S.T.S.A. must be fed every four hours with a feeding tube. M.A., her father, also suffers from the disorder.
In September 2000, Ramsey County Community Human Services Department (RCCHSD) became involved with S.T.S.A.’s welfare after receiving a report of neglect. S.T.S.A. has been hospitalized four times for failure to thrive, and evidence was presented that S.T.S.A.’s parents have been unable to follow her feeding schedule. Because S.T.S.A.’s parents were unable to find stable housing, they agreed to place the child with her paternal grandparents, with whom S.T.S.A. remained from September 2000 to January 2001. S.T.S.A.’s parents voluntarily agreed to place S.T.S.A. in foster care on March 13, 2001. On April 12, 2001, S.T.S.A.’s parents signed a case plan developed by a social worker with RCCHSD, which listed several requirements for both parents. M.A. did not comply with several aspects of the case plan.
The district court may terminate parental rights only if clear and convincing evidence establishes that at least one statutory ground for termination exists and that termination is in the best interests of the child. See Minn. Stat. § 260C.317, subd. 1 (2002); In re Welfare of A.L.F., 579 N.W.2d 152, 154 (Minn. App. 1998); see also Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b) (2002) (providing statutory grounds for termination). An appellate court reviews a termination of parental rights to determine “whether the district court’s findings address the statutory criteria and whether those findings are supported by substantial evidence and are not clearly erroneous.” In re Welfare of P.R.L., 622 N.W.2d 538, 543 (Minn. 2001) (citation omitted). We examine the record “to determine whether the evidence is clear and convincing.” Id. (citing In re Welfare of Clausen, 289 N.W.2d 153, 156 (Minn. 1980)). Parental rights may be terminated only for grave and weighty reasons. In re Welfare of M.D.O., 462 N.W.2d 370, 375 (Minn. 1990) (citation omitted). In a termination-of-parental-rights proceeding, the best interests of the child are paramount. Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 7 (2002).
In terminating M.A.’s parental rights, the district court relied on four of the applicable statutory criteria, finding that (1) M.A. substantially, continuously, and repeatedly refused to comply with the duties imposed on him by the parent-child relationship, Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(2); (2) M.A. is palpably unfit to be a party to the parent-child relationship, Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(4); (3) reasonable efforts failed to correct the conditions that led to the CHIPS adjudication, Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(5); and (4) S.T.S.A. was neglected and in foster care, Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(8). M.A. argues that the record fails to support the district court’s findings addressing the statutory criteria.
The district court may terminate parental rights if it finds
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.
Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(2). CHIPS interventions generally require a case plan that reflects the reasonable efforts of a social services agency to facilitate reunification of the parent and child. See Minn. Stat. § 260.012 (2002) (outlining reasonable efforts for rehabilitation and reunification); Minn. Stat. § 260C.201, subd. 6 (2002) (requiring case plans with CHIPS dispositions). M.A.’s case plan required him to complete a parenting evaluation, obtain and maintain stable housing, attend all doctors’ appointments for S.T.S.A., attend a parenting program, and cooperate with RCCHSD, a public health nurse, and his adult protection worker. The district court found that M.A. will not be able to fulfill his parental duties in the reasonably foreseeable future, because he failed to comply with his case plan and use services offered to him.
In challenging the district court’s determination, M.A. argues that he has not neglected his duties as a parent. The record shows that M.A. complied with the case plan’s requirement that he cooperate with the public health nurse. But the record also shows that M.A. did not comply with other important elements of the case plan. From the testimony of the social worker who developed M.A.’s case plan, it is clear that, although M.A. attempted to use services, such as a parenting program and a tenant advocacy class, he ultimately failed to follow through with them. For example, M.A. did not complete a parenting evaluation or enroll in a parenting class. M.A. also has not obtained housing. M.A.’s adult protection worker referred M.A. to a social worker and therapist, who testified that, over a two-year period, M.A. missed more individual therapy appointments than he attended, and M.A. never enrolled, after four unsuccessful attempts, in an anger management group. In addition, M.A. missed 12 to 15 visits with S.T.S.A.
The record clearly establishes that M.A. did not comply with most of his case plan, and we are satisfied that M.A’s failure to do so lends ample support to the district court’s finding that he is not capable of complying with his duties as S.T.S.A.’s parent. Thus, we conclude that the district court’s findings regarding M.A.’s neglect of his parenting duties are supported by substantial evidence and are not clearly erroneous.
The district court may terminate parental rights if it finds
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).
The district court based its finding of M.A.’s palpable unfitness to parent S.T.S.A. for the reasonably foreseeable future on (1) M.A.’s two-year history of involvement with child protection; (2) his resistance to working with child protection; (3) his inability to maintain safe and stable housing; (4) his history of unemployment and inability to manage his social security payments to provide for the material, financial, and medical needs of S.T.S.A.; (5) his failure to develop necessary parenting skills despite efforts to assist him in doing so; and (6) his repeated absences from scheduled visits with S.T.S.A.
While conceding that he did not cooperate with all of the requirements of his case plan, M.A. argues that failing to do so does not constitute palpable unfitness, because he is a caring and loving parent with specific knowledge of his daughter’s medical needs. Although there is evidence that M.A. loves S.T.S.A., our review of the record also establishes that there is substantial support for the district court’s determination. We, therefore, conclude that the district court’s findings addressing M.A.’s unfitness as a parent are not clearly erroneous.
The district court may terminate parental rights if it finds
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)(5).
As to this statutory criterion, the district court relied on M.A.’s inadequate attention to S.T.S.A.’s health needs, M.A.’s inability to secure stable housing and employment, his failure to complete parenting classes, and his lack of effort to address his own mental health needs. The district court also found that M.A. lacks insight into the special needs of S.T.S.A.
In challenging the district court’s findings, M.A. maintains that he has never neglected S.T.S.A.’s physical health. M.A. also points to his unsuccessful attempts to find housing and enroll in a parenting program. But the record is devoid of evidence that these attempts have indeed corrected the conditions leading to S.T.S.A’s foster care placement.
At trial, M.A.’s social worker testified that M.A. has not rectified the conditions that led to S.T.S.A.’s out-of-home placement. In her final evaluation, M.A.’s social worker observed the same issues that she observed when her involvement with M.A. commenced. Evidence of S.T.S.A.’s recurrent hospitalization while in M.A.’s care, in contrast to her ability to thrive without hospitalization in the out-of-home placement, establishes that M.A. was not able to properly provide for S.T.S.A.’s health and nourishment. Indeed, S.T.S.A.’s health needs were the reason RCCHSD intervened on behalf of S.T.S.A.
Because there is substantial evidence in the record establishing that reasonable efforts have not corrected the conditions leading to S.T.S.A.’s placement out of the home, we conclude that the district court’s findings are not clearly erroneous.
D. Neglected and in foster care
Parental rights may be terminated if the district court finds “that the child is neglected and in foster care.” Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(8).
“Neglected and in foster care” means a child
(a) [w]ho has been placed in foster care by court order; and
(b) [w]hose parents’ circumstances, condition, or conduct are such that the child cannot be returned to them; and
(c) [w]hose parents, despite the availability of needed rehabilitative services, have failed to make reasonable efforts to adjust their circumstances, condition or conduct, or have willfully failed to meet reasonable expectations with regard to visiting the child or providing financial support for the child.
Minn. Stat. § 260C.007, subd. 24 (2002). Finding that S.T.S.A. “has been in foster care for a cumulative period of 16 months” and “additional services would not likely bring about a lasting parental adjustment enabling a return of the child to the parent within an ascertainable period of time,” the district court concluded that S.T.S.A. is neglected and in foster care. The district court found that, although RCCHSD had made several types of rehabilitative services available to M.A., the circumstances leading to the CHIPS adjudication remain uncorrected.
M.A. does not dispute that S.T.S.A. was placed in foster care by court order. But he contends that S.T.S.A. has not been neglected. As we concluded above, M.A.’s lack of housing and his refusal of services preclude S.T.S.A.’s return to M.A. The record also shows that M.A. has not met his social workers’ reasonable expectations for visiting S.T.S.A. or providing financial support for her. Thus, substantial evidence supports the district court’s determination that S.T.S.A. is “neglected and in foster care.”
E. Best interests
Although we have concluded that four of the statutory criteria for termination have been met, termination of M.A.’s parental rights is precluded unless it is in S.T.S.A.’s best interests. In re Welfare of M.P., 542 N.W.2d 71, 74 (Minn. App. 1996). Three factors guide us in reviewing the district court’s conclusion that termination is in the best interests of the child:
(1) the child’s interests in maintaining the parent-child relationship; (2) the parent’s interests in maintaining the parent-child relationship; and (3) any competing interests of the child.
In re Welfare of R.T.B., 492 N.W.2d 1, 4 (Minn. App. 1992) (citation omitted).
Finding that S.T.S.A. lacks permanency and that M.A. has not demonstrated that he can adequately care for a special-needs child, the district court determined that it is in S.T.S.A.’s best interests to terminate M.A.’s parental rights. The district court found that, in her foster home, S.T.S.A. has made developmental progress. She cries less, has formed an attachment to her foster mother, is beginning to speak, has gained weight, and has begun to eat without the assistance of a feeding tube. The record supports these findings. The guardian ad litem also opined that termination of M.A.’s parental rights is in S.T.S.A.’s best interests.