may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1996).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In the Matter of the Welfare of:
M.R.M. and D.R.M., Children.
Filed December 30, 1997
Toussaint, Chief Judge
Nicollet County District Court
File No. J59750008
Todd W. Westphal, Assistant Nicollet County Attorney, P.O. Box 360, St. Peter, MN 56002-0360 (for respondent - county)
Considered and decided by Toussaint, Chief Judge, Randall, Judge, and Norton, Judge.
Debra Betzing appeals the trial court order terminating her parental rights to her two sons. Because the record contains clear and convincing evidence to support the trial court's decision, we affirm.
The trial court found it was in the boys' best interests to terminate appellant's parental rights. Appellant argues that the trial court was unduly influenced by her new husband's prior criminal conviction for sexual assault. She argues the trial court erred by admitting and considering evidence of stepfather's prior criminal conviction.
Evidentiary rulings are within the trial court's discretion and will not be reversed absent a clear abuse of discretion. State v. Washington, 521 N.W.2d 35, 41 (Minn. 1994). Even if evidence of stepfather's conviction was irrelevant, its admission does not require reversal unless it affected the outcome. See Minn. R. Evid. 103 (error only if substantial right is affected); Minn. R. Civ. P. 61; Jenson v. Touche Ross & Co., 335 N.W.2d 720, 725 (Minn. 1983) (evidentiary ruling must affect the result).
In support of her argument of evidentiary error, appellant relies on State v. Bates, 507 N.W.2d 847 (Minn. App. 1993), review denied (Minn. Dec 27, 1993). (Holding that evidence of a defendant's homosexuality was irrelevant to charges that he sexually abused young children). See id. at 852. Appellant analogizes that evidence that stepfather had abused a young woman is irrelevant to whether or not he is likely to abuse young boys. However, Bates was a criminal case to determine whether the crime of sexual assault had occurred, and its holding is inapplicable here. In this civil proceeding, the trial court was deciding what would be in the children's best interest.
Evidence of criminal sexual conduct with children other than one's own can be a relevant fact in a termination proceeding. In re Welfare of H.M.P.W., 281 N.W.2d 188, 190 (Minn. 1979). The relevancy of such evidence is not limited to proving whether a parent will harm the children. Instead, it is relevant as one fact when deciding if termination is justified under the unique facts and circumstances of each case. Id. at 190-91. The trial court did not abuse its discretion by considering evidence of stepfather's conviction as a fact relating to the conditions in the children's home at the time of the hearing. See In re Welfare of Chosa, 290 N.W.2d 766, 769 (Minn. 1980) (evidence must address conditions existing at time of hearing).
Even without considering stepfather's conviction, the record contained substantial evidence to support the court's best-interest finding. The trial court found stepfather: (1) had a history of chemical dependency and treatment; (2) failed to complete recommended outpatient treatment; (3) probation prohibits contact with young women, including appellant's daughters; (4) indicated he did not want the boys at his home; (5) appellant's relationship with stepfather had a detrimental effect on her ability and availability to parent; and (6) appellant chose her relationship with stepfather over her relationship with her daughters.
Appellant also argues that the evidence does not support the trial court's finding that she "substantially, continuously, or repeatedly * * * neglected to comply with the duties imposed upon that parent by the parent and child relationship * * * and reasonable efforts by the social service agency have failed to correct the conditions." Minn. Stat. § 260.221, subd. 1(2). Appellant argues that the trial court ignored evidence that she was providing for her children.
The trial court's findings of fact will not be overturned on appeal unless they are clearly erroneous. Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01. An appellate court defers to a trial court's ability to evaluate evidence and determine credibility. Id. The county's witnesses testified that appellant had placed an unhealthy amount of responsibility on her older daughters to care for her sons. Goals of appellant's case plan were to relieve her daughters from this parenting responsibility and to assist appellant in establishing a parental relationship with her sons. The notes and testimony of in-home service providers Laura Weiler and Tammy Lassen supported the trial court's finding that appellant was unable to achieve those goals. Based on their testimony, the trial court found appellant: (1) daughters were caring for the boys more than appellant; (2) did not recognize potential dangers to the boys; (3) showed a poor relationship and interaction with the boys; (4) was preoccupied with other events and could not cope or direct her attention to the boys; (5) was unable to impose boundaries or exert control over the boys; and (6) demonstrated a lack of knowledge of parenting skills and the boys' needs.
The trial court also found that the boys have special needs with developmental delays primarily involving their speech. During the time they were in foster care, their special education teachers noted improvement. The boys' foster parents spent considerable time working on their speech, labeling items and having the boys attempt to ask for what they needed. When the boys were returned to appellant's home, their skills regressed. The trial court found that appellant would be unable to provide the environment needed to overcome the boys' delays.
The record contains substantial evidence to support these findings, and these findings established parental neglect that would not be corrected in spite of the reasonable efforts of the county. We question whether this record establishes that appellant was a palpably unfit parent. However, we need not reach that issue because the record supports the trial court's finding of neglect and that termination was in the children's best interest.