This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).







Kathleen Ann Sackett, petitioner,


Melissa Marie Ehrnreiter,



Filed September 6, 2005


Lansing, Judge


Ramsey County District Court

File No. F9-01-1660



Jean Gerval, Child Advocacy Clinic, 190 Mondale Hall, 229 - 19thAvenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55455 (for respondent)


Melissa M. Ehrnreiter, 180 Star Circle, Vadnais Heights, MN 55127 (pro se appellant)


            Considered and decided by Lansing, Presiding Judge; Halbrooks, Judge; and Hudson, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D  O P I N I O N




            In a custody proceeding under Minnesota Statutes Chapter 257C, the district court found that clear and convincing evidence established Kathleen Sackett as an interested third party and that it was in the child’s best interests for Sackett to have sole legal and physical custody subject to reasonable parenting time for the mother, Melissa Ehrnreiter.  Ehrnreiter appeals the custody determination and the district court’s order denying her motion for amended findings or a new trial.  Because the district court properly applied the law, reasonably exercised its discretion, and relied on facts supported by the record, we affirm.



            Melissa Ehrnreiter is the mother of LE who was born in May 2000.  In August 2001, when LE was fifteen months old, Ehrnreiter voluntarily placed him with Kathleen Sackett and gave Sackett power of attorney to maintain temporary custody of LE.  Ehrnreiter and her sister had lived with Sackett as teenagers when they encountered problems with their parents.  Sackett, who had raised three children, adopted Ehrnreiter’s sister.  LE stayed with Sackett for approximately four weeks until conflicts developed over LE’s custody.  Ehrnreiter requested LE’s return and revoked the power of attorney.  Five days later, on October 9, 2001,  Ramsey County Child Protection placed LE in foster care. 

            In November 2001 the Ramsey County Attorney’s office filed a child-in-need-of-protection-or-services (CHIPS) petition for LE’s benefit.  The petition alleged that Ehrnreiter was disregarding LE’s safety, was unable to set reasonable or safe limits for a toddler, and was not adequately providing for LE’s physical and medical needs.  At about the same time, Sackett filed a third-party petition for custody of LE.  

Erhnreiter admitted the allegations of the amended CHIPS petition, and the court adjudicated LE as a child in need of protection or services.  In January 2002 the district court granted Sackett’s motion to intervene in the CHIPS proceeding and consolidated the custody and CHIPS files into one proceeding.  In the same order, the district court granted Sackett temporary legal and physical custody of LE, pending a custody evaluation and evidentiary hearing. 

In June 2003 the district court determined chapter 257C applied to the proceeding and conducted a contested-custody hearing and took testimony from thirteen witnesses.  Sackett, in October 2003, amended her custody petition to incorporate the pleading requirements of the statute.

Following the hearing, the district court issued findings of fact, conclusions of law, and an order granting Sackett sole legal and physical custody of LE, subject to Ehrnreiter’s reasonable visitation.  The court found that Sackett had established that she is an interested third party by presenting clear and convincing evidence that Ehrnreiter consistently exhibited disregard for LE’s well-being and that placing LE with Sackett must take priority over preserving a day-to-day relationship between LE and Ehrnreiter because of the danger to LE’s physical and emotional well-being. 

After concluding that Sackett is an interested third party, the court evaluated the twelve best-interests factors set forth in Minn. Stat. § 257C.04, subd. 1(a) (2002), to determine LE’s best interests in the custody dispute.  The district court fully considered each factor.  Applying the factors to Ehrnreiter, the district court found she functioned as LE’s primary caretaker with the assistance of friends and family for more than a year of LE’s life; she has now obtained adequate housing but historically had inadequate and unstable housing; she has a long history of serious mental-health problems that persist; and, although Ehrnreiter loves LE, she lacks the ability to translate this affection into a positive relationship with LE, is seriously limited in her ability to interact with LE, and has difficulty placing LE’s interests above her own.  The district court considered these circumstances and based its best-interests determination on Sackett’s demonstrated ability to interact effectively with LE, the strong bond between Sackett and LE, LE’s positive adjustment to living with Sackett over the last two years, the comparative mental and physical health of Ehrnreiter and Sackett, and the permanence and stability of Sackett’s household.  Relying on these factors, the district court concluded that it is in LE’s best interests to have Sackett exercise sole legal and physical custody of LE, subject to parenting time with Ehrnreiter.

The district court denied Ehrnreiter’s motion for amended findings or a new trial.  In this appeal, Ehrnreiter disputes (1) the district court’s determination that Sackett established that she is an interested third party, (2) the district court’s determination that it is in LE’s best interests for Sackett to have sole legal and physical custody of LE, and (3) four additional issues relating to the custody determination.





The procedural and evidentiary requirements for third-party, nonparent, child-custody proceedings are governed by Minn. Stat. § 257C.03 (2004).  See In re Kayachith, 683 N.W.2d 325, 326 (Minn. App. 2004) (stating that legislature enacted chapter 257C to address custody requests by nonparents), review denied (Minn. Sept. 29, 2004).  Under the procedure established in chapter 257C, a third party seeking custody of a child must first file a petition that alleges a basis for jurisdiction by asserting that he or she is an “interested third party,” verify the petition, and support its allegations by competent evidence.  Minn. Stat. § 257C.01, subd. 3, .03, subds. 1, 2 (2004). 

To establish that the petitioner is an interested third party, the petitioner must show, by clear and convincing evidence, the existence of one of the following factors: (1) the parent’s neglect, abandonment, or disregard for the child’s well-being that demonstrates the child will be harmed by living with the parent; (2) physical or emotional danger to the child that indicates the child’s placement with the proposed custodian should take priority over the relationship with the parent; or (3) “other extraordinary circumstances.”  Minn. Stat. § 257C.03, subd. 7(1)(i-iii). 

Ehrnreiter contends that the evidence fails to establish Sackett’s status as an interested third party.  We disagree.  Although interested-third-party status requires an affirmative finding on only one of the three factors, the district court found that the evidence established the existence of two of the three.

On the first factor, the district court found that the evidence established by clear and convincing evidence that Ehrnreiter has consistently exhibited disregard for LE’s well-being.  The court made that finding based on four subsidiary findings.  First, Ehrnreiter’s sexual relationships endangered LE; one assaultive relationship caused LE’s premature birth with bruises on his body and a second assaultive relationship involved a man who had been convicted of sexually molesting children.  Second, Ehrnreiter could not adequately care for LE, requested that Sackett take responsibility for LE, and subsequently admitted to the allegations of the CHIPS petition.  Third, Ehrnreiter has a history of making poor choices that affected LE’s welfare and caused the termination of Ehrnreiter’s participation in various government-sponsored education, housing, and health programs.  Fourth, and finally, Ehrnreiter failed to participate in anger-management programs or individual therapy, despite the recommendations of the psychologist and the parenting evaluator that both programs are critical to her ability to parent.

On the second factor, the district court found that placing LE with Sackett must take priority over preserving a day-to-day relationship between LE and Ehrnreiter because of the danger posed by living with Ehrnreiter.  The district court found that LE had made significant progress during the time he had been in Sackett’s care and had formed a strong attachment to Sackett.  The court observed that LE’s physical and emotional health is very good and that he has made progress in speech therapy.  Referring to reports by Ehrnreiter’s psychologist, the district court noted a guarded prognosis for Ehrnreiter’s ability to responsibly parent LE because of the serious nature of her mental-health problems, which are exhibited by a reported overdose of Nyquil, an intentional burning of her forearm, and her internal voice telling her to cut herself.  These professional observations about mental health were also expressed in the March 2002 psychologist’s report that diagnosed Ehrnreiter with a depressive disorder and a personality disorder with antisocial features.  Similarly, the parenting evaluator, in the spring of 2002, described Ehrnreiter as suffering serious and persistent mental illness that remains untreated.  

Ehrnreiter contends that the reports on which the district court based its findings are not current.  The record does not support this contention.  The district court stated that the recent information was more probative on some issues, but that the less recent information was still relevant.  We agree.  The psychologists’ testimony was based on examinations of Ehrnreiter in 2001 and 2002.  Ehrnreiter’s own expert psychologist, who evaluated her a few months before trial, reported her long-term difficulty with anger management and impulsive behavior and her failure to follow the previous recommendations for therapy and anger management.  Her psychologist concluded that although “[Ehrnreiter] has made progress in her ability to parent, . . . there is more for her to accomplish in order to parent independently as she wishes.”  Consistent with this determination, the guardian ad litem stated that Ehrnreiter’s mental health and parenting skills continue at a level precluding unsupervised visitation with LE and specifically observed that, based on Ehrnreiter’s inability to follow through after previous parenting interventions, she was uncertain that Ehrnreiter is willing or able to change her behavior.

In evaluating the totality of the testimony, the district court found that Ehrnreiter had a “well-documented history of antisocial behavior, extremely poor judgment in relationships, significant mental health problems, and an ongoing resistance to mental health and anger management therapy.”  These parental deficiencies, as observed by the district court, present an “overall picture . . . consistent . . . with mental health and anger management issues which remain unaddressed.”   The district court noted that Ehrnreiter  is making some progress in addressing these significant problems, but “no knowledgeable professional has suggested that [she] has fully overcome her history of erratic and dangerous behavior.”  The record supports the district court’s determination by clear and convincing evidence that factors exist to establish interested-third-party status and that the evidence of these factors remains current.


When custody is disputed, an interested-third-party petitioner must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that granting third-party custody is in the best interests of the child, using the best-interests standards set forth in Minn. Stat. § 257C.04 (2004).  Minn. Stat. § 247C.03, subd. 7(2).  See Lewis-Miller v. Ross, 699 N.W.2d 9, 12-13 (Minn. App. 2005) (applying procedures and evidentiary burdens under chapter 257C).

Ehrnreiter contends that the district court’s findings are insufficient to show that it is in LE’s best interests that Sackett receive legal and physical custody of LE.  We disagree.  The district court made explicit findings on the twelve best-interests factors in Minn. Stat. § 257C.04.  The district court carefully evaluated the comparative benefits and deficits of Sackett’s and Ehrnreiter’s custody.  The factor-by-factor analysis took into account Sackett’s effective interaction with LE, the strong bond that had formed between Sackett and LE, LE’s positive adjustment to living with Sackett and his progress in speech therapy, Sackett’s apparent physical and mental health compared with Ehrnreiter’s current mental-health challenges, and the permanence and stability of Sackett’s household, which Ehrnreiter has yet to achieve.  The district court’s evaluation recognized Ehrnreiter’s love for LE, but concluded that her “serious mental health and parenting deficits severely inhibit her ability to translate affection for [LE] into a relationship that is in the child’s best interest.” 

These findings are supported by the evidence.  Although the testimony of Ehrnreiter’s friends and family establishes that Ehrnreiter has a strong emotional attachment to LE, her current mental-health challenges and her inability or unwillingness to resolve those challenges weigh against a finding that Ehrnreiter could adequately parent LE at the present time.  The district court did not err in finding that it is in LE’s best interests to grant Sackett legal and physical custody.


Ehrnreiter raises four additional issues that relate generally to her arguments on third-party status and the determination of best interests.  First, Ehrnreiter challenges the constitutionality of Minn. Stat. § 257C.04, subd. 1(c), directing the district court not to give preference to a party “solely because the party is a parent of the child.”  Ehrnreiter asserts that the application of this subdivision deprives her of her fundamental right to raise her child.  See Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651, 92 S. Ct. 1208, 1212 (1972) (recognizing that parents have fundamental interest in companionship, care, custody, and management of children).  This provision is directed at the child’s best-interests determination.  See Minn. Stat. § 257C.04 (listing best-interests factors).  It does not state the complete standard for making a custody decision between a biological parent and an interested third party.  The district court recognized Ehrnreiter’s constitutionally protected relationship with LE and the accompanying presumption of fitness to parent.  But the court also recognized that chapter 257C codifies the exceptional circumstances that may take precedence over that presumption.  See In re Custody of N.A.K., 649 N.W.2d 166, 175 (Minn. 2002) (explaining that exceptional circumstances can overcome superior custody rights of parent). 

Second, Ehrnreiter contends that the custody determination equated to a termination of her parental rights and that the district court erred by failing to apply the evidentiary standard for parental-rights termination.  See In re Welfare of Children of R.W., 678 N.W.2d 49, 55 (Minn. 2004) (stating that termination of parental rights is proper if “at least one statutory ground for termination is supported by clear and convincing evidence and termination is in the child’s best interests”).  Termination-of-parental-rights and third-party-custody proceedings share some common characteristics.  The child’s best interests are the overriding consideration in both instances.  See In re Welfare of J.R., Jr. & A.I.R., 655 N.W.2d 1, 5 (Minn. 2003) (noting importance of best-interests determination in termination-of-parental-rights cases).  And the “grave reasons” for overcoming the presumption of parental custody “approach those required for the termination of parental rights.”  In re Welfare of P.L.C. & D.L.C., 384 N.W.2d 222, 225 (Minn. App. 1986).  But the level and finality of a termination proceeding differs from that of a custody determination.  A parent whose rights are terminated based on the application of a statutory criterion for termination loses all rights to parent that child.  See Minn. Stat. §§ 260C.301 (providing termination criteria including abandonment, substantial neglect of duties of parent-child relationship, or palpable unfitness to be parent); .317, subd. 1 (2004) (stating that parental rights of “custody, control, visitation, or support” are severed after termination).  An order in a third-party-custody proceeding, however, may include provisions for visitation and is subject to modification.  Minn. Stat. § 257C.05, .06 (2004).  Because a third-party-custody proceeding does not equate to a termination of parental rights, the court did not err by declining to apply that standard and, instead, applying the standard required under chapter 257C.

Third, Ehrnreiter argues that, in denying her custody of LE, the district court improperly failed to consider her parenting relationship with her four-month-old daughter.  The record demonstrates that the district court considered Ehrnreiter’s relationship with her daughter.  In its detailed findings, the district court considered the demands of the relationship and its effect on parenting LE, an active three year old; found that Ehrnreiter had obtained appropriate housing for herself and her daughter; found that Ehrnreiter expressed love for her daughter; and, in a posttrial order, stated that currently Ehrnreiter is “able to maintain a life for herself and her daughter” with extensive help from family members.  But the court properly noted that it is Ehrnreiter’s ability to parent LE that is at issue in this proceeding, and no legal authority supports the argument that Ehrnreiter’s ability to parent her four-month-old baby compels a conclusion that she can simultaneously parent LE.

Fourth, Ehrnreiter contends that the district court should have granted her conditional custody.  Ehrnreiter did not raise this argument at the contested hearing, thus, it has not properly been preserved for appeal.  See Grigsby v. Grigsby, 648 N.W.2d 716, 726 (Minn. App. 2002) (stating that issue first raised in posttrial motions is untimely), review denied (Minn. Oct. 15, 2002).  Even if Ehrnreiter had properly preserved the issue for review, we find no basis to reverse the district court’s denial of conditional custody.  The same considerations that apply to the custody determinations under Minn. Stat. ch. 257C also apply to the consideration of conditional custody.  On this record, the district court did not abuse its discretion or legally err in making a determination on custody that did not provide for Ehrnreiter exercising conditional custody of LE.