This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In the Matter of the Welfare of the Children of:
J.A.R. and R.J.L., III, Parents.
Filed November 22, 2005
Benton County District Court
05-JV-04-176; 05-JV-04-177; 05-JV-04-178
John D. Reep, Reep Law Office, PLLC,
Andrew R. Pearson,
Robert J. Raupp,
Considered and decided by Peterson, Presiding Judge; Dietzen, Judge; and Huspeni, Judge.*
Appellants challenge the district court order and judgment terminating their parental rights arguing that the two statutory bases found by the district court were not supported by clear and convincing evidence, and termination was not in the best interests of the children. Because the district court’s decision that two statutory bases exist for termination is supported by clear and convincing evidence, and termination is in the children’s best interests, we affirm.
Appellants R.J.L. III (father) and J.A.R. (mother) are the parents of three children, R.J.L. IV (R.J.L.) and twins, A.M.L., and A.J.L. (the twins), who are the subject of this appeal. Father has two other children from a previous relationship who are in the custody of their biological mother. Mother has another daughter from a previous relationship who is in the sole physical custody of the biological father. At the time of the termination order, mother was pregnant with her fourth child and alleges that father is the biological parent. Father and mother are not in a committed relationship.
Both appellants have acknowledged a history of drug, alcohol, and relationship difficulties. Both have admitted to significant drug and alcohol problems, and both have criminal records. Mother was cited for fleeing the scene of an accident, minor consumption, and driving without insurance in August 2001. In October 2002, mother was arrested and charged with underage consumption and motor vehicle operation, driving after suspension, careless driving, possession of drug paraphernalia, and possession of a small amount of marijuana. In June 2003, father was incarcerated on several different charges and probation violations, including several driving after revocation charges, a contempt of court charge, possession of drug paraphernalia, and a domestic assault charge in which he was alleged to have punched mother’s stepfather in an argument over a bag of marijuana.
R.J.L. was born July 18, 2002. During his life, R.J.L. has been shifted back and forth between his mother, father, father’s current girlfriend, the girlfriend’s brother, and father’s parents. In May 2003, mother brought R.J.L. to a hospital, stating that R.J.L. had fallen out of bed. Mother stated that she first noticed R.J.L.’s arm injury on April 26 but did not seek medical attention until May 5. The x-rays of the fractured forearm showed clean breaks. The examining physician expressed concern over the manner of the fracture and reported the matter to the county human services department for a child protection assessment. The county filed a Children in Need of Protection and Services (CHIPS) petition on May 15 alleging physical abuse, and R.J.L. was removed from the home on May 18, 2003. Both mother and father eventually admitted to the allegations in the CHIPS petition.
In August 2003, the county filed
its first out-of-home placement plan (Case Plan I) with the goal of reunifying R.J.L.
and his parents. Case Plan I required
each parent to obtain stable housing, complete a parenting assessment and
psychological evaluation, and demonstrate the ability or financial resource to
provide for R.J.L. should the parent regain custody. Case Plan I required that mother increase her
parenting skills through a series of classes, complete chemical dependency
treatment, and submit to random drug tests.
It also required that father complete a chemical dependency evaluation,
submit to random drug testing, and no longer en
Both parents completed a parenting assessment administered by a clinical psychologist as required by Case Plan I. The psychologist concluded that a strong bond existed between R.J.L. and mother. He observed that change was possible for mother, but that her relationships and social behavior were unstable. He advised “considerable caution” be used in reunifying R.J.L. and mother, and suggested continued treatment and parenting education for her.
The psychologist examined father and concluded that his most significant parental barrier has been his chronic, long-term drug abuse. The psychologist concluded that father’s behavioral history is not consistent with a parent who places his children’s needs above his own. He also observed that father did not intend to care for the twins until paternity was proven and that he was estranged from mother. Finally, he recommended that father complete drug and anger management treatment.
Initially, mother made some progress. The district court found that she was doing all of the things the county asked her to do. She stayed clean and sober, and utilized the support and services made available to her. As for father, the court concluded that he made some good-faith efforts to comply with the case plan, such as obtaining employment. Father completed 18 of 20 anger management classes, but he was still using drugs. As a result of mother’s progress, the court, after a review hearing, returned custody of R.J.L. to mother under the county’s supervision.
The twins were born on January 6, 2004 with severe respiratory illnesses which required special care, i.e., a smoke-free environment. The county filed a CHIPS petition, alleging that appellants were unable or unwilling to provide the necessary care for the twins. The twins were placed in emergency protective care in February, 2004, shortly after their births.
A few weeks after the twins’ birth, father was charged with fifth-degree domestic assault against his girlfriend. Father later admitted to the assault. At that time, father was still involved in his anger management program. Father was discharged from the anger management and drug rehabilitation programs ordered by the court. These actions violated court orders.
Mother began but did not complete the intake procedure for a transitional housing program in February 2004. Although the court ordered her to remain in contact with the program so that she could obtain permanent housing, mother declined to do so because she did not believe it was necessary. Her conduct violated the court’s order.
While mother was hospitalized with the twins, she left R.J.L. with his maternal grandmother. Because mother had stated earlier that she was not comfortable leaving R.J.L. with her parents, the county attempted to contact her several times to inquire about R.J.L., but was unsuccessful. Mother violated the court orders by failing to stay in contact with the county and leaving her child in the care of others. Consequently, the county scheduled an emergency hearing.
In March 2004, after an emergency protective care hearing, physical and legal custody of all three children was transferred to the county. Both parents admitted that they failed to provide the twins with necessary food, clothing, shelter, education, and other required care. Testimony at the hearing established that father had refused further drug testing, was not working with an individual therapist, and was not utilizing community resources to build his parenting skills, and that mother tested positive for drugs. The county requested that mother submit to a drug test on March 12, 2004, but she refused to comply.
A second out-of-home placement plan (Case Plan II) was established for all three children. Case Plan II reiterated the conditions of Case Plan I. After mother signed the Case Plan II, father reviewed but did not sign the plan. The county requested and was granted an extension of six months to work on reuniting father and mother with all three children.
Father violated the conditions of Case Plan II. He was arrested for probation violations, unpaid fines, and a new charge for driving after revocation. Father tested positive for marijuana on five occasions from March through October 2004. He was offered the opportunity to reenter the chemical dependency treatment program but declined to do so. Father attended most of his scheduled visits with the twins, but did not participate in the medical care of the twins. Based on a police report, new assault charges were filed against father arising out of an incident with his girlfriend.
Mother relapsed into drug use, testing positive for marijuana use 15 times from March through September 2004. Mother expressed a willingness to enter a transitional housing program but did not take the actions necessary to make that happen. Mother attended all of her scheduled visits with the twins.
On July 4, 2004, father and mother were involved in an altercation at a public park where they were camping overnight. Mother was charged with disorderly conduct and father was charged with two counts of domestic assault. Father was incarcerated for his assault charges and probation violations.
On August 19, 2004, the county filed petitions to terminate the parental rights of both parents for all three children. A pre-trial hearing was held January 12, 2005, in which both parents requested another time extension to fully comply with the court orders and out-of-home placement plans. The county and guardian ad litem (GAL) argued that further continuances would not be in the children’s best interests, given their need for stability and permanence and the time extensions already granted. The court agreed, denying appellants’ requests for extensions.
The termination of parental rights (TPR) trial was held on January 14 and 21, 2005. The county introduced evidence and testimony regarding appellants’ relationship problems and history of drug and alcohol abuse, the 2003 CHIPS petition, R.J.L.’s out-of-home placement, Case Plan I, appellants’ failure to comply with Case Plan I, the clinical psychologist’s 2003 parenting assessment, the 2004 CHIPS petition, the twins’ out-of-home placement, Case Plan II, appellants’ failure to comply with Case Plan II, and the 2004 emergency protective care hearing and order. The court took judicial notice of the case files for all three children. The county also provided updated testimony based on these prior incidents.
Both parents testified at trial. Mother testified that she had abstained from using mood-altering chemicals, including alcohol. At the time of trial, mother had completed an in-patient chemical dependency treatment program and a halfway-house program. She tested negative for drugs from October 20, 2004 until the trial began. Mother also testified that she was looking for an apartment with father. She indicated a willingness to quit smoking and to do the fifth step of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) program. When asked about her male dependency issues, she stated that she was in love with father, that he was the father of her children, and that they wanted to be a family.
Father acknowledged that the twins’ medical condition necessitated a smoke-free environment and that he and mother had quit smoking on January 17, 2005, but there was no independent verification to support this claim. Father testified that he had a job as a machine operator at $13 an hour and that he would like to go back to school to finish his education. He admitted that he did not complete the chemical dependency treatment program, but indicated that he had a period of sobriety for six months with only a “couple of relapses.” He stated that he scheduled an intake session for the anger management course. He also admitted that he continues to drive a vehicle without a driver’s license.
The GAL testified in favor of terminating both mother and father’s parental rights. She indicated that each had simply run out of time, and pointed out that their past history and present intentions do not match. She did not believe the parents have the maturity, skills, or determination to provide the care necessary for the children.
Following trial, the district court made 232 findings of fact. The district court concluded that “[t]his is not a case of looking at a snapshot on a particular day or week but is a case of looking at the entire pattern of [appellants’] behavior over the period of time that the Court has had jurisdiction of this case, including at trial.” Based on these findings, the court determined that the county proved by clear and convincing evidence two grounds for termination: (1) appellants’ failure to correct the conditions leading to the children’s placement in spite of reasonable efforts by the county to correct the conditions leading to placement; and (2) the children are neglected and in foster care. The district court also concluded that it was in the best interests of the children to terminate appellants’ parental rights. Mother and father each filed separate appeals. Their appeals were later consolidated by this court.
D E C I S I O N
On appeal from a termination of
parental rights, “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 (
may terminate parental rights on the basis of one or more of the nine criteria
listed in Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b) (2004). Although the petitioner need only prove one
criterion, the primary consideration in any termination proceeding is the best interests
of the child.
This court will
affirm a termination of parental rights “as long as at least one statutory
ground for termination is supported by clear and convincing evidence and
termination is in the child’s best interests.”
In re Welfare of Children of R.W.,
678 N.W.2d 49, 55 (
The district court
concluded that reasonable efforts failed to correct the conditions leading to
children’s out-of-home placement under Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(5)
The juvenile court may upon petition, terminate all rights of a parent to a child 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). It is presumed that reasonable
efforts have failed if, among other factors, the parent has not substantially
complied with the court’s orders and the case plan and “reasonable efforts have
been made by the social services agency to rehabilitate the parent and reunite
Father contends that at the time of trial, he was in substantial compliance with the case plans, and therefore corrected the conditions leading to placement. Specifically, father notes that he completed 18 of 20 anger management classes as part of Case Plan I ordered by the court. The district court considered and rejected father’s contention. The district court considered the entire record and determined that father did not substantially comply with Case Plan I, including, but not limited to, completion of the anger management class. The record shows that father was charged with two assaults after starting the anger management class and did not complete the class as required by Case Plan I. The district court found that father did not demonstrate that he quit smoking, found stable housing, or completed a chemical treatment program. Father did not even agree to participate in Case Plan II. Thus, the record shows father was not in substantial compliance with either case plan.
Father argues that after a six-month period of drug treatment followed by a relapse, he was unable to re-enroll in drug treatment because of financial difficulties. The district court considered and rejected this argument, and in so doing, found father was not a credible witness. The record shows that: (1) father did not follow through with what he needed to do to obtain funding for the treatment program; and (2) father did not attend free consultation appointments to re-enter the program. Consequently, the district court’s conclusion that reasonable efforts failed to correct the conditions leading to the children’s placement with father is supported by clear and convincing evidence.
Mother argues that conditions for termination did not exist because she complied with her case plan. Specifically, mother contends that she completed in-patient and out-patient chemical treatment, had negative drug testing since October 1004, and obtained stable living arrangements.
But we conclude that mother’s argument is not supported by the record. The district court considered and rejected mother’s contention. The district court, viewing the entire history of mother’s behavior, was not convinced her sobriety would continue into the future. The district court found that mother had demonstrated a consistent inability to become and remain sober. Mother does not dispute the evidence of her past addictions. The district court further found that mother’s current sobriety has not been tested. The district court’s conclusion that reasonable efforts failed to correct the conditions leading to child placement with mother is supported by clear and convincing evidence.
The district court
determined that the county proved by clear and convincing evidence that the
children were neglected and in foster care under Minn. Stat. § 260C.301,
Father appears to argue that because he sought rehabilitation for his drug addiction, he made reasonable efforts to adjust his circumstances. But the district court found that father did not complete his drug treatment program and was not persuaded by his excuses for not doing so. On factual determinations, we defer to the district court unless the findings are clearly erroneous. D.D.G., 558 N.W.2d at 484. Here the district court’s findings are supported by the record. Therefore, the district court’s conclusion that the children were neglected and in foster care is supported in the record by clear and convincing evidence.
Mother argues that she has made reasonable efforts to adjust her circumstances because she sought rehabilitation for her drug addiction and obtained stable housing, and therefore the children are not neglected. But the district court found that while mother worked harder than father to rehabilitate herself, she visited the children for only short periods of time, and that she essentially “played house” and left others to take care of them. These findings are uncontested by mother. Because mother did not make reasonable efforts to gain experience in the day-to-day life of a parent, the district court’s conclusion that the children were neglected and in foster care is supported in the record by clear and convincing evidence.
The district court
concluded that termination of appellants’ parental rights was in the best
interest of the children. In a
termination-of-parental-rights proceeding, the best interests of the child are
paramount. Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd.
7. Three factors guide this court’s
review of the district court’s finding that termination is in the best
interests of the children: “(1) the child’s interests 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 (
Father argues that it is not in the children’s best interests to terminate his parental rights. But the record supports the district court’s determination that termination was in the children’s best interests. The GAL testified in support of terminating father’s parental rights because she did not believe he has the maturity, skills, or determination necessary to provide for the children. The district court found a discrepancy between father’s stated desire to parent and his actions. The district court found that father continued to violate the law by driving without a license, continued to smoke despite the twins’ severe asthma problems, lacked stable housing, and failed to complete anger management and chemical dependence rehabilitation programs. Clear and convincing evidence demonstrates that termination of father’s parental rights is in the best interests of the children.
Mother contends that termination was not in the best interests of the children because a strong bond exists between her and R.J.L. Even if a strong bond exists, the record shows sufficient evidence to support the district court’s conclusion that termination was in the best interests of the children. The district court found mother’s actions demonstrated a pattern of drug use and smoking, an inability to follow through with programs and counseling, a failure to obtain safe and stable housing, and a history of relationship problems with father.
In the alternative, mother argues that even if termination is presently in the best interests of the children, she will become a fit parent in the foreseeable future and termination is not warranted. See In re Welfare of M.H., 595 N.W.2d 223, 228 (Minn. App. 1999) (affirming the district court’s refusal to terminate parental rights where the district court found that the mother would become a fit parent in the reasonably foreseeable future). The district court found that there is insufficient evidence to conclude mother will remain sober, not smoke, maintain adequate housing, become self-supporting, work on her personal and relationship issues, and provide daily care for the children. Therefore, clear and convincing evidence demonstrates that termination of mother’s parental rights is in the best interests of the children.
Appellants’ present stated interest in parenting their children is insufficient to overcome their history of neglect and abuse of their children. The totality of the record demonstrates that two statutory grounds for termination are supported by clear and convincing evidence and termination is in the children’s best interests.
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.