This opinion will be unpublished and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 Children
C.L. and N.B., Parents.
Anoka County District Court
File No. J2-02-53643
Kathryn J. Cima, 1007 West 53rd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55419 (for appellant)
Robert M.A. Johnson, Anoka County Attorney, Marcy S. Crain, Assistant County Attorney, Anoka County Government Center, 2100 Third Avenue, 7th Floor, Anoka, MN 55303 (for respondent)
Kathleen Cater, P.O. Box 859, Anoka, MN 55303 (Guardian Ad Litem)
Considered and decided by Wright, Presiding Judge; Lansing, Judge; and Minge, Judge.
Appellant mother challenges the termination of her parental rights to two children on the grounds that the evidence does not support the finding that she is palpably unfit, that she corrected the conditions that led to the out-of-home placement, and that termination is not in the best interests of the children. Because we conclude that the district court’s findings are supported by substantial evidence and are not clearly erroneous, we affirm.
N.B. and appellant C.L. are the parents of two children, C.L., age three, and D.L., age one. Appellant and N.B.’s relationship has been turbulent, involving reported domestic-assault incidents in four states. Appellant obtained an Order for Protection (OFP) against N.B. in Colorado. Both were arrested and charged with domestic assault in Oregon, and police had to intervene in their domestic incidents in Texas. Upon their return to Minnesota, appellant moved to a shelter to seek protection from N.B. and obtained another OFP against him. Appellant lifted the OFP when they later reconciled.
Minnesota law enforcement and child-protection authorities were alerted to their violent relationship on May 12, 2002, when appellant tried to prevent N.B. from leaving their home by threatening him with a knife. One of the children witnessed the incident. Both parties were arrested, and the children were placed in foster care that day. Within two weeks, the district court found that C.L. and D.L. were children in need of protection or services (CHIPS).
As a result of the CHIPS determination, social workers developed a case plan designed to reunite the family. Appellant was to complete the following: domestic-abuse counseling; individual, couples, and group therapy; an Al-Anon program; independent-living skills training; parenting education; and a psychological evaluation. The social workers also determined that C.L. had severe speech delays and significant delays in his gross-motor skills. They made arrangements for him to receive therapy and meet with specialists to address these concerns. The social workers also identified significant concerns with his emotional behavior. At the age of three, he was emotionally distraught, screaming for long periods several times a day, difficult to comfort, and was often withdrawn and sad.
Petitions to terminate the parental rights of both appellant and N.B. were filed on November 14, 2002. N.B. agreed to voluntarily terminate his rights, and a hearing was held for appellant. On June 27, 2003, the district court terminated appellant’s parental rights on three grounds: (1) she was palpably unfit to be a party to the parent and children relationship; (2) reasonable efforts, under the court’s direction, failed to correct the conditions leading to the children’s out-of-home placement; and (3) the children were neglected and in foster care. See Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(4), (5), (8) (2002). Appellant appeals on the grounds that she is not palpably unfit, that she has made reasonable progress in correcting the conditions that led to the out-of-home placement of the children, and that termination of her parental rights is not in the best interests of the children.
“Parental rights are terminated only for grave and weighty reasons.” In re Welfare of M.D.O., 462 N.W.2d 370, 375 (Minn. 1990). When reviewing a district court’s findings in a termination proceeding, “appellate courts are 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). This court closely inquires into the sufficiency of the evidence to determine whether the evidence is clear and convincing. In re Welfare of S.Z., 547 N.W.2d 886, 893 (Minn. 1996). Although this court defers to the district court’s findings, we exercise great caution in proceedings to terminate parental rights. In re Welfare of A.J.C. and R.L.K., 556 N.W.2d 616, 622 (Minn. App. 1996), review denied (Minn. Mar. 18, 1997).
The legislature has established nine criteria that support termination of parental rights. See Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b) (2002). While a district court may terminate parental rights when only one criterion is proven, the primary consideration in every termination case is the child’s best interests. Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subds. 1(b), 7 (2002).
Under the palpably unfit criteria, 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 . . . 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 burden of proving a parent “palpably unfit” is onerous. M.D.O., 462 N.W.2d at 376. The evidence must address the conditions that exist at the time of the hearing, and it must appear these conditions will continue for a prolonged, indeterminate period. See In re Welfare of D.I. and D.I., 413 N.W.2d 560, 563 (Minn. App. 1987).
The district court found that appellant engaged in a consistent pattern of negative conduct in the presence of her children. There is clear and convincing evidence to support this finding. One of the main goals of the reunification plan was addressing appellant’s anger. The district court found that rather than working on this issue in counseling, appellant would often switch providers and would not open up in the groups, preventing any substantial progress. While her attendance was good at individual counseling, she changed therapists several times, reports indicated that she made little progress and lacked insight into her behaviors and their impact on her children, and she failed to receive additional testing on which further counseling depended. During one counseling session, appellant began yelling at her therapist, stood very close to her, and told her to never come back. There is no evidence that appellant made any progress in group counseling or couples’ therapy. She stated she was not willing to move to a more intense level of sharing. She and N.B. had to stop couples’ therapy after one month when they obtained restraining orders against one another.
Throughout the time the children were in foster care, appellant continued to lose her temper in front of the children. Social workers complained of appellant’s anger as being “off the chart” and “like a light switch.” These outbursts often occurred in the presence of the children. Phone contact between her and the foster-care provider was prohibited because appellant made several rude phone calls a day. When a foster mother attempted to help appellant change D.L.’s diaper, appellant yelled at her to take her hands off her son. On one visit, the social worker had to threaten to summon security. At another, when three-year-old C.L. asked a staff person for help, appellant told the staffer never to interact with her children again.
While we recognize that none of the outbursts was directed at the children, the district court found that the outbursts were unpredictable and disturbing to the children. The social workers testified that after these incidents, the children’s behaviors regressed to those that were seen when they were first placed. After witnessing appellant’s irate behavior, C.L. slept excessively and was unable to focus attention. Despite the months of and various forms of counseling, there is no evidence that appellant made any significant progress in controlling these outbursts, and the district court’s finding is not clearly erroneous.
A second goal of the plan was for appellant to learn appropriate parenting. But again, after months of parenting education, appellant failed to show any substantial improvement. Supervised visits with the children were set up at a controlled-visitation center. Social workers attempted to move visitation to appellant’s home, but appellant cancelled the visit because there was a conflict between her and N.B. Social workers also attempted to move to less-structured group-supervised visits. But after only two visits, a parent educator recommended one-to-one parent education because appellant did not have the skills to meet the needs of both children in that setting. Additionally, between July 25 and September 11, 2002, appellant missed approximately half of her visits and parent-education time.
Because of her aversion to having supervised visits in the institutional setting of the visitor’s center, appellant made repeated requests to move the visits to her residence. The district court denied these requests because of recurring safety problems. Appellant did not notice when the children would stand on tables, get caught in their strollers, walk out of the room, or pull heavy objects off of bookcases. Social workers also reported that appellant would not remove scissors from the children’s reach, and on one occasion, she dropped D.L. on his head. Visits were suspended in December 2002 because of these concerns.
A parenting assessment of appellant noted that the parent-child relationship was very damaged. The damage was attributed, in part, to appellant’s conduct. During one visit, appellant showed little interest in her children. She took D.L. out of his car seat for only 15 minutes. C.L. did not approach appellant and D.L. did not make eye contact with her. Appellant was unable to read the children’s cues and respond appropriately. For example, on one occasion, D.L. was yawning and acting tired. Even though appellant had recently fed him, she read his cues as hunger. Appellant also appeared to be unable to incorporate the educator’s suggestions. For instance, because C.L. was largely non-verbal when he entered foster care, appellant was encouraged to respond every time he spoke, using short phrases he could understand. After six months, appellant was only able to do this about half of the time. When C.L.’s therapy was interrupted at one hospital, she refused to have him sent to another hospital offering the same services. Social workers’ opinions were that the prognosis for successful reunification was poor because appellant had not made enough progress and acquired the skills necessary to keep her children safe. This evidence is clear and convincing and supports the district court’s finding.
The district court also found that appellant’s conduct renders her unable, for the reasonably foreseeable future, to parent the two children. On the positive side, there is evidence that appellant has made some progress toward correcting the conditions that led to the children’s placement by maintaining housing and employment, possibly terminating her relationship with N.B., and successfully completing domestic-abuse counseling. We commend her for such improvements and hope they stabilize her life. However, the district court observed that this change is problematical. Three months before the hearing, appellant commented that her relationship with N.B. was not finished and that she was still in love with him. Records show a long history of violence and reconciliation.
The court concluded that despite being offered a wide range of parenting education, therapy, and other services, appellant did not fully take advantage of these services and was unfit to care for her children. At the time of the termination hearing, D.L. and C.L. had been in foster care for ten months and appellant showed no substantial improvement in her ability to control her anger or adequately supervise the children. Social workers testified that the probability for successful reunification was poor because of appellant’s unwillingness to work with the parent educators or participate in therapy. There is nothing in the record to suggest that she will be able to achieve those results in the reasonably foreseeable future when she has been unable to do so in the ten months prior to the hearing.
The record of appellant’s conduct supports the district court’s finding that she is unable to care appropriately for the physical, mental, or emotional needs of the children. As has been previously stated, the children’s safety, a paramount concern, remained an issue throughout the entire length of this proceeding. Because the evidence supports the requirements of Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(4), the district court’s finding that appellant is palpably unfit is not clearly erroneous.
Because appellant has been found to be a palpably unfit parent, one of the grounds for terminating her parental rights is met, and we do not address the alternative grounds found by the district court.
Upon determining that one or more of the enumerated bases for termination exist in a given case, the district court then analyzes whether termination would serve the children’s best interests. See In re Welfare of J.M. and M.M., 574 N.W.2d 717, 722-24 (Minn. 1998). A best-interests analysis requires the district court to balance the parent’s and the child’s interests under the specific circumstances to see which interests predominate. In re Welfare of Udstuen, 349 N.W.2d 300, 304 (Minn. App. 1984).
The district court found that C.L.’s severe special needs require that he have a safe and stable environment. The record reflects that he has additional difficulties functioning during periods of significant stress. Though she received special instructions from various specialists, appellant was unable to incorporate those recommendations into her visits with C.L. and failed to manage her violent outbursts and unpredictable temper. C.L. appears to “shut down” after those incidents. Social workers testified that the mother-child relationship was severely damaged and that both children seem much happier, eat and sleep better, and are less agitated and fussy now that the visitations with appellant have stopped. Social workers stated that appellant’s outbursts and unpredictable screaming usually occurred in the presence of the children and caused anxiety in and damage to the children. They concluded that the children need a permanent placement and that further time in foster care will delay their attachment to their primary parent and be detrimental to their well being. Thus, the district court did not err in making such findings and concluding that termination of appellant’s parental rights is in the children’s best interests.