This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2006).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In the Matter of the Welfare of the Child of S. L. L., Parent
Washington County District Court
File No. JV-2006-2975
Sherri D. Hawley, 13055 Riverdale Drive Northwest, Suite 500, PMB 246, Coon Rapids, MN 55448-8403 (for appellant S.L.L.)
Douglas H. Johnson, Washington County Attorney, Erin A. Johnson, Assistant County Attorney, 14949 62nd Street North, P.O. Box 6, Stillwater, MN 55082-0006 (for respondent Washington County)
Considered and decided by Willis, Presiding Judge; Minge, Judge; and Hudson, Judge.
Appellant challenges the district court’s decision to terminate her parental rights, arguing that the district court failed to conduct a reasoned analysis of the best interests of the child. We affirm.
November 14, 2006, appellant-mother S.L.L. gave birth to a baby boy at a
Officials had difficulty locating appellant. The police began searching for her shortly after she left the hospital. Because she had given the hospital an invalid address, the police attempted to locate appellant by use of telephone and vehicle-registration records. They also conducted driver’s license checks on appellant and K.Y. These leads were not productive.
The district court then scheduled an admit/deny hearing for December 18, 2006. Before the hearing, the district court learned that appellant’s parental rights to her three other children were involuntarily terminated in 2003 due, in large part, to a history of drug use and child neglect. The county continued to search for appellant, but was unable to locate her for service of process. The county then published notice of the December 18 hearing for three consecutive weeks before the hearing. Sometime after publication, appellant made one telephone call to a social worker and stated that she was upset about the child’s name. Appellant did not reveal her location, but the social worker reportedly told appellant about the hearing.
Appellant failed to appear at the December 18 hearing, but the alleged father, K.Y., did appear. K.Y. stated that he did not know where appellant was and that he did not know how to contact her. The district court entered a default judgment against appellant and terminated her parental rights. The district court later issued an amended judgment providing that the proceedings to terminate the father’s parental rights were continued pending the results of his paternity testing. This appeal follows.
The primary issue presented
on appeal is whether the district court adequately considered the best
interests of the child in issuing its default judgment and terminating
appellant’s parental rights. “[O]n
appeal from a default judgment, a party in default may not deny facts alleged
in the complaint when such facts were not put into issue below.” Thorp
Loan and Thrift Co. v. Morse, 451 N.W.2d 361, 363 (
“Parental rights are terminated only
for grave and weighty reasons.” In re
Welfare of M.D.O., 462
N.W.2d 370, 375 (
Parental rights may be terminated under any one of nine statutory standards provided in Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b) (2006). Here, the district court found that termination of appellant’s parental rights was appropriate under four of these standards: first, appellant abandoned the child under Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(1); second, appellant repeatedly refused or neglected to comply with her parental duties under Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(2); third, appellant is palpably unfit to be a parent under Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(4); and fourth, the baby is neglected and in foster care under Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(8). Appellant does not challenge these findings on appeal. Rather, she argues that the district court failed to adequately consider the best interests of the child.
Even if a statutory
condition for termination exists, “the paramount consideration” in determining
whether parental rights will be terminated is “the best interests of the
child.” Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 7
(2006). In order to properly analyze the
best interests of the child during a termination proceeding, courts must
balance three factors: “(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 (
Although the best interests
of the child cannot be the sole justification for the termination of parental
rights, it is an important factor to be considered by the district court.
Appellant argues that the
district court “[did] not adequately address” the best-interests factors. Appellant relies heavily on the Tanghe case, in which this court
reversed a district court’s termination decision because the decision did not
include “a specific finding on the best interests of the children.” 672 N.W.2d at 626. As this court reasoned, “when the findings do
not adequately address best interests, they are inadequate to facilitate
effective appellate review, to provide insight into which facts or opinions
were most persuasive of the ultimate decision, or to demonstrate the court’s
comprehensive consideration of the statutory criteria.”
Here, the district court made extensive findings of fact detailing, among other things, appellant’s complete abandonment of the baby, appellant’s failure to attempt to reunite with the baby in any way, appellant’s history of drug use and criminal activity, appellant’s unknown whereabouts and failure to appear at any of the court proceedings, and the baby’s improved health and environment since initial placement. Furthermore, the district court’s decision clearly indicates that the district court based its best-interests conclusion on the facts that (1) the child in question is a newborn baby who tested positive for cocaine shortly after birth; and (2) appellant abandoned the baby at the hospital and did not attempt to reunite with the child thereafter.
Appellant concedes that the district court considered a litany of factors in reaching its conclusion, including the child’s current functioning and behavior, the child’s medical and developmental needs, the child’s history and past experiences, and the child’s relationship to current caretakers, parents, and relatives. But appellant argues that the district court improperly emphasized the fact that the child is a newborn and that the district court failed to consider the child’s relationships with parents and relatives. The child’s age and appellant’s dramatic abandonment are significant facts. The district court’s findings and conclusions recount the child’s parentage, the search by social services for relatives with whom the baby could be placed, and the failure of one relative to pass a background check.
Appellant also argues that the district court failed to adequately consider how the child’s best interests would be affected by the fact that the alleged father’s parental rights had not been terminated, implying either (1) that the child would be better served by continuing to have her as a parent rather than the father alone; or (2) that the child would have to interact with appellant in the event that appellant had a future relationship with the alleged father. We acknowledge that an awkward situation may arise based on the comparative parental attributes and the uncertainty surrounding the status of the father’s parental rights. However, in this case, the district court’s decision to terminate appellant’s parental rights is amply supported by the record and there is no showing that the interests of the child are served by delaying that decision.
Also, there is nothing in the record to indicate that appellant and the alleged father have any kind of relationship. In fact, the record indicates that the alleged father did not know appellant’s whereabouts or how to contact her. Furthermore, the district court made it clear that any potential rights of the alleged father depended on the results of his paternity testing. The record is silent on the results of such testing or the alleged father’s potential rights. The county may yet seek to terminate or otherwise address father’s parental rights. It would be inappropriate to require the district court, as a part of its best-interests analysis in this proceeding, to speculate as to the outcome of the alleged father’s paternity testing and any resulting custody or parental-rights orders.
Appellant further argues
that the child will be prejudiced by the loss of appellant’s obligation and
ability to provide financial support. In
support of this argument, appellant cites two cases in which a non-custodial
parent attempted to voluntarily
terminate parental rights: In re Welfare
of Alle, 304 Minn. 254, 230 N.W.2d 574 (1975) and In re Welfare of J.D.N., 504 N.W.2d 54 (
Here, unlike in Alle and J.D.N., the district court terminated appellant’s parental rights without appellant’s consent. As already observed, the district court must evaluate all of the considerations and circumstances involved with the case as it determines the best interests of the child. Appellant points to no resources or capacity to provide for the child or any prospect of gaining such capacity. Although the district court may not have considered the financial consequences of terminating appellant’s parental rights in great detail, it certainly considered the need to remove the child from a potentially destructive or unhealthy environment if the child were placed in appellant’s care. Because termination served the purpose of removing the child from a destructive or unhealthy home environment, the outcome was in the child’s best interests.
Finally, appellant argues
that a presumption of unfitness does not relieve the district court of its
obligation to consider the best interests of the child. A presumption of palpable unfitness
to parent a child applies “upon a showing . . . that the parent’s custodial
rights to another child have been involuntarily [terminated] . . . .”
Here, appellant’s parental rights to three other children were involuntarily terminated in 2003 because of her history of chemical abuse and child neglect. Therefore, the presumption of unfitness applied to appellant, and appellant has not attempted to rebut that presumption. The district court considered the presumption of unfitness as a part of its factual findings, particularly appellant’s history of drug use and neglect. The record indicates that this pattern of behavior has continued with respect to the new baby. Thus, it would not have been error for the district court to rely on the presumption of unfitness here. But the district court did not base its decision solely on the presumption of unfitness. As indicated above, the district court gave a great deal of consideration to all of the circumstances involved with this case, and it carefully considered the best interests of the child. Thus, the district court properly considered the presumption of unfitness, and the underlying basis for that presumption, as a part of its overall analysis.
Because we conclude that the district court adequately considered the child’s best interests in deciding to terminate appellant’s parental rights and that the district court’s findings are sufficient to allow for our review of that decision, we affirm.
 The record is silent regarding the outcome of the alleged father’s paternity testing and any potential termination of his parental rights.