This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In the Matter of the Children of Corey Lee Dixon, Parent.
Ramsey County District Court
File No. J299555587
Patrick D. McGee, Assistant Ramsey County Public Defender, 1086 Otto Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55116 (for appellant)
Mike Hatch, Attorney General, 102 State Capitol, Aurora Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55155 (for respondent State of Minnesota)
Susan Gaertner, Ramsey County Attorney, Ann E. Ploetz, Assistant County Attorney, 50 West Kellogg Blvd., Suite 560, St. Paul, MN 55102; and
Margaret L. Gustafson, Baker Court, Suite 305, 821 Raymond Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55114 (for respondent Ramsey County)
Paul Bergstrom, 580 Dayton Street, St. Paul, MN 55102 (for guardian ad litem)
Considered and decided by Randall, Presiding Judge, Kalitowski, Judge, and Schumacher, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
Appellant-father Corey Lee Dixon challenges the termination of his parental rights to C.J.D., D.J.W., C.M.W., and C.W., arguing that (1) the evidence produced did not support a termination of his parental rights; and (2) the admission of an inaccurate affidavit substantially prejudiced appellant. We affirm.
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). The district court may terminate parental rights 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)). In a termination-of-parental-rights proceeding, the best interests of the children are paramount. Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 7 (2002).
In terminating appellant’s parental rights, the district court relied on four of the applicable statutory criteria, finding that (1) appellant 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) appellant 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) C.J.D., D.J.W., C.M.W., and C.W. were neglected and in foster care, Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(8). Appellant argues that the record fails to support the district court’s findings addressing the statutory criteria. We disagree.
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). In this case, multiple case plans were prepared for appellant. The case plans required appellant, among other things, to (1) obtain suitable housing for himself and his children; (2) complete the My Home parenting program; (3) pursue employment; (4) apply for Medical Assistance for his children; (5) complete immunizations for C.M.W. and D.J.W.; (6) engage in a support group for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAS/FAE); (7) pay child support; and (8) visit C.W. while she is in foster care. The district court found that appellant would not be able to fulfill his parental duties in the reasonably foreseeable future because he failed to comply with his case plans.
In challenging the district court’s determination, appellant argues that he has not neglected his duties as a parent. The record shows that appellant complied with some parts of his case plans, such as completing the My Home parenting program. But when crediting a parent’s current circumstances, reviewing courts look for significant progress in fulfilling the requirements of an assigned case plan. See In re Welfare of M.H., 595 N.W.2d 223, 227 (Minn. App. 1999). A showing of merely some progress is insufficient. See In re Welfare of B.M., 383 N.W.2d 704, 708 (Minn. App. 1986), review denied (Minn. May 22, 1986); In re Welfare of J.K., 374 N.W.2d 463, 466 (Minn. App. 1985) (deciding that a mother’s claimed recent improvement in light of her whole “negative track record” was not enough to show the trial court clearly erred in finding her poor parenting would continue indefinitely). And here, the record shows that appellant did not substantially comply with many important elements of the case plans.
Appellant admitted that he failed to provide child support for any of the children. The testimony of the foster parents and the child protection worker established that appellant also did not provide medical coverage for the children and did not obtain immunization shots for C.M.W. and D.J.W. Further, appellant failed to comply with the case plan requirement to engage in a support group for FAS/FAE. In fact, appellant failed to attend even one meeting because up until the last day of trial, appellant maintained that none of his children has FAS/FAE. And in the eight months that C.W. was in foster care, appellant only visited her once even though he could have visited her every other week.
Moreover, while at trial appellant lived in a three-bedroom apartment, the court’s finding that appellant has failed to obtain stable housing is not clearly erroneous. The record shows that appellant is currently unemployed and has been unemployed since June 2001. Since losing his job in June 2001, appellant has not attempted to obtain employment. Appellant’s only source of income is $600 a month in unemployment benefits. And the record indicates appellant stated he does not know when those benefits will expire. Thus, appellant has not demonstrated that he can adequately provide suitable and stable housing in the future after his unemployment benefits expire. Moreover, the record indicates that appellant has a history of losing his residence, and that in the past, appellant had to return the children to their mother because he became homeless.
The record establishes that appellant did not substantially comply with his case plans, and appellant’s failure to do so supports the district court’s finding that he is not capable of complying with his duties as a parent to C.J.D., D.J.W., C.M.W., and C.W. Thus, we conclude that the district court’s findings regarding appellant’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 appellant’s palpable unfitness to parent C.J.D., D.J.W., C.M.W., and C.W. for the reasonably foreseeable future on (1) appellant’s long history with child protection; (2) appellant’s current resistance to working with child protection for his children; (3) appellant’s history of homelessness and inability to obtain safe, stable housing for himself and his children; (4) appellant’s history of unemployment, and his failure to provide for the medical and financial needs of his children; and (5) appellant’s failure to maintain contact with C.W.
Our review of the record establishes that there is substantial support for the district court’s findings. As previously discussed, appellant failed to substantially complete any of his case plans. And a parent’s failure to complete goals set forth in a case 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).
Appellant’s failure to substantially comply with any of his case plans establishes that appellant consistently puts his own needs ahead of the special needs of his children. We, therefore, conclude that the district court’s findings addressing appellant’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). Whether the county has met its duty of reasonable efforts requires consideration of the length of time the county was involved and the quality of the effort. In re Welfare of A.R.G.-B., 551 N.W.2d 256, 263 (Minn. App. 1996).
As discussed above, the conditions leading to the out-of-home placement have not been corrected as evidenced by appellant’s failure to substantially comply with any of the case plans. Moreover, the county put forth significant efforts to provide appellant with the resources necessary to meet the requirements of the case plans. The Ramsey County Community Human Services Department (RCCHSD) has been involved with this family since June 1991. And since that time, RCCHSD has provided appellant with multiple services and case plans to help keep appellant and his children together. Appellant has been provided with financial assistance, section 8 referrals, and the Project Hope housing program to assist appellant in overcoming a negative rental history. And appellant was provided with the services of numerous doctors to help appellant understand the special needs of his children. Further, from April 1, 2001, through August 16, 2001, appellant was given the opportunity to care for the children during a trial home placement. Notwithstanding the assistance provided by RCCHSD, appellant was not able to substantially complete his case plan that went along with the home placement. Appellant never attended a meeting involving FAS/FAE. He did not obtain employment or find suitable housing. And he did not provide medical or financial support for any of his children. Consequently, the court revoked the trial home placement.
Because there is substantial evidence in the record establishing that reasonable efforts have not corrected the conditions leading to the children’s placement out of the home, we conclude that the district court’s findings are not clearly erroneous.
4. Neglected and in foster care
Minn. Stat. § 260C.007, subd. 24 (2002), defines “neglected and in foster care” as a child:
(a)Who has been placed in foster care by court order; and
(b)Whose parents’ circumstances, condition, or conduct are such that the child cannot be returned to them; and
(c)Whose 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.
Substantial evidence supports the district court’s finding that all three of these factors were met. All of the children have been placed in foster care by order of the court. And the conduct and condition of appellant that led to the out-of-home placement and appellant’s failure to make reasonable efforts to adjust those conditions has already been discussed.
Moreover, Minn. Stat. § 260C.163, subd. 9 (2002), lists seven factors that must be considered in determining whether a child is neglected and in foster care. These factors are:
(1)the length of time the child has been in foster care;
(2)the effort the parent has made to adjust circumstances, conduct, or conditions that necessitates the removal of the child to make it in the child’s best interest to be returned to the parent’s home in the foreseeable future, including the use of rehabilitative services offered to the parent;
(3)whether the parent has visited the child within the three months preceding the filing of the petition, unless extreme financial or physical hardship or treatment for mental disability or chemical dependency or other good cause prevented the parent from visiting the child or it was not in the best interests of the child to be visited by the parent;
(4)the maintenance of regular contact or communication with the agency or person temporarily responsible for the child;
(5)the appropriateness and adequacy of services provided or offered to the parent to facilitate a reunion;
(6)whether additional services would be likely to bring about lasting parental adjustment enabling a return of the child to the parent within an ascertainable period of time, whether the services have been offered to the parent, or, if services were not offered, the reasons they were not offered; and
(7)the nature of the efforts made by the responsible social services agency to rehabilitate and reunite the family and whether the efforts were reasonable.
Here, the district court properly addressed each of these seven factors, and substantial evidence supports the district court’s determination that C.J.D., D.J.W., C.M.W., and C.W. are “neglected and in foster care.”
5. Best interests
Although we have concluded that four of the statutory criteria for termination have been met, termination of appellant’s parental rights is precluded unless it is in the children’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 interest in preserving the parent-child relationship; (2) the parent’s interest in preserving 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) (citation omitted).
All of the children have special needs. C.J.D. has been diagnosed with adjustment disorder, has had problems involving stealing and has indicated that she wants to kill herself; D.J.W. has been diagnosed with FAE and adjustment disorder and has anger problems; C.M.W. has been diagnosed with FAE, is in her third year of kindergarten, and has to travel to school on a bus while she is constrained in a harness; and C.W., who is only a year old, has had bouts of eczema and ringworm that have required medical attention.
The testimony at trial from the foster parents, the therapists, the social workers, and the doctors all indicate that these children need structure, stability, and love. Permanency is extremely important for all of the children. The children also need someone who understands their special needs and can respond to those needs accordingly.
Appellant’s inability to substantially complete any of the case plans demonstrates that appellant is incapable of putting his children’s special needs ahead of his own needs. Because of the children’s special needs, the district court properly determined that the children will be better served if they are with someone who can put their needs first. Thus, the district court did not err in concluding that on these facts, termination of parental rights is in the best interests of the children.
The district court has discretion to admit or exclude evidence, and its decision will not be reversed unless it was an abuse of discretion or based on an erroneous view of the law. TMG Life Ins. Co. v. County of Goodhue, 540 N.W.2d 848, 851 (Minn. 1995). A party is not entitled to reversal of a judgment based on an erroneous evidentiary ruling unless the party demonstrates that the error was prejudicial. Cloverdale Foods of Minnesota v. Pioneer Snacks, 580 N.W.2d 46, 51 (Minn. App. 1998). An evidentiary error is prejudicial if the error might reasonably have changed the result of the trial. See Jenson v. Touche Ross & Co., 335 N.W.2d 720, 725 (Minn. 1983) (erroneous exclusion of evidence).
Appellant argues that the district court abused its discretion in admitting certain evidence at the trial. During the trial, the state offered exhibit 35, an affidavit by a paternity clerk in the Ramsey County attorney’s office. The affidavit stated that the county had no records indicating that appellant had made any attempts to establish paternity to D.J.W., C.M.W., or C.W. Appellant objected to this information, arguing that it was not a complete statement of the relevant information and that it was not the best evidence available on the points it was alleging. The district court admitted the exhibit over appellant’s objection.
Following the trial, the court specifically found that appellant had not established paternity to D.J.W., C.M.W., and C.W. But after the court had issued its findings, appellant received a fax from the clerk stating that appellant had taken a blood test in 1996 to establish paternity for D.J.W. Appellant sought a new trial based on the fact that the affidavit was erroneously admitted, contained inaccurate information, and that its improper admission had a prejudicial impact on appellant.
We conclude that even if the district court abused its discretion by admitting the affidavit, the resulting error was not prejudicial to appellant. An evidentiary error is prejudicial if the error might reasonably have changed the result of the trial. And in denying appellant’s motion for a new trial, the district court stated that:
There was overwhelming evidence presented to support the Court’s Findings. Even without consideration of [the clerk’s] affidavit, the Court would have reached the same conclusion that the evidence presented was more than sufficient to terminate [appellant’s] parental rights.
Because sufficient evidence exists to support the termination of appellant’s parental rights, the admission of the alleged inaccurate affidavit was not prejudicial to appellant.