STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In re: The Child of Wiley Allen Widme
and Lynae Olson.
Filed December 14,1999
Clay County District Court
File No. J09851000
Peter E. Karlsson, P.O. Box 1035, Moorhead, MN 56561-1035; and
Richard E. Edinger, 200 5th Street South, Suite 103, Moorhead, MN 56560 (for appellant Wiley Allen Widme)
Lisa N. Borgen, Clay County Attorney, Brian J. Melton, Assistant County Attorney, Clay County Courthouse, 807 North 11th Street, P.O. Box 280, Moorhead, MN 56561 (for respondent Clay County Social Services)
Considered and decided by Klaphake, Presiding Judge, Randall, Judge, and Peterson, Judge.
Appellant father challenges the termination of his parental rights to his infant child, arguing that the county did not provide clear and convincing evidence that the child experienced egregious harm while in his care. We affirm.
A short time later, Widme and Olson brought CAW to a hospital emergency room. Olson went into the hospital with the child while Widme parked the car. Widme arrived in the emergency room as Dr. Jeffrey Lystad was obtaining the child's medical history from Olson. Widme asked Olson whether she had told the doctor that CAW fell off the bed two weeks earlier. Widme told the doctor that CAW had not been the same since the fall. Olson explained that CAW fell from a bed to a carpeted floor two weeks earlier and suffered a bump on his head. CAW cried but otherwise seemed fine. Olson remained concerned about CAW's condition, and she called Dial-A-Nurse seeking medical advice.
Because the history of vomiting and CAW's lethargic appearance upon examination suggested to Lystad that CAW might have suffered a head injury, a CAT scan of the head was performed. The CAT scan showed that CAW had a subdural hematoma in the left frontal area of his brain. Lystad spoke with the parents about the CAT scan results and the need to admit the child to the hospital. Widme stated that the injury must have been caused by the fall two weeks earlier. When Lystad responded that the injury was much more recent, within a day or two, Widme became agitated and asked, "Are you accusing me of child abuse?" Widme then became very profane and critical toward the medical staff.
Symptoms associated with a serious head injury were noted while CAW was in the hospital, including seizures and retinal hemorrhaging. CAW also had fresh scratches, bruises, or abrasions on his upper back, shoulder, and neck when he was admitted to the hospital.
Parental rights are terminated only for grave and weighty reasons. The standard of review is, therefore, well defined. The appellate court must determine whether the trial court's findings address the statutory criteria, whether those findings are supported by substantial evidence, and whether those findings are clearly erroneous. The child's best interests, however, remain the paramount consideration in every termination case.
In re Welfare of M.D.O., 462 N.W.2d 370, 375 (Minn. 1990) (citations omitted).
In an action to terminate parental rights, the petitioner must prove by clear and convincing evidence that one or more statutory grounds exist for termination. In re Welfare of C.K., 426 N.W.2d 842, 847 (Minn. 1988). "Clear and convincing proof will be shown where the truth of the facts asserted is `highly probable.'" Weber v. Anderson, 269 N.W.2d 892, 895 (Minn. 1978).
One of the statutory grounds for terminating parental rights is
that a child has experienced egregious harm in the parent's care which is of a nature, duration, or chronicity that indicates a lack of regard for the child's well-being, such that a reasonable person would believe it contrary to the best interest of the child or of any child to be in the parent's care.
Minn. Stat. § 260.221, subd. 1(b)(6) (1998).
"Egregious harm" means the infliction of bodily harm to a child or neglect of a child which demonstrates a grossly inadequate ability to provide minimally adequate parental care.
Minn. Stat. 260.015, subd. 29 (1998).
Widme argues that the county failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that he intentionally injured CAW, or that CAW suffered intentional egregious harm while in his care. But it was not necessary for the county to prove that Widme intentionally injured CAW. Egregious harm under section 260.015, subd. 29, does not require that a parent has inflicted bodily harm on his child but, rather, that a child has experienced harm in the parent's care that demonstrates the parent's grossly inadequate ability to provide minimally adequate care to the child. In re Welfare of A.L.F., 579 N.W.2d 152, 155-56 (Minn. App. 1998). The trial court found that Widme caused CAW's injuries; it did not find that Widme intentionally injured CAW.
Widme also contends that there was no medical evidence or direct evidence that indicated he caused the injury. He contends the evidence demonstrated only that he had an opportunity to inflict the injury. Widme has not, however, cited any authority requiring the county to use direct evidence to meet its burden of proof.
In a civil case,
[i]f the circumstantial evidence furnishes a reasonable basis for inferences by the jury of the ultimate fact that the alleged acts of the defendant caused the injury complained of, it is sufficient proof of causal connection to sustain a verdict.
Erickson v. Strickler, 252 Minn. 351, 355, 90 N.W.2d 232, 236 (1958). Even in a criminal prosecution, where there is a heavier burden of proof, the burden can be met with circumstantial evidence, and a conviction based on circumstantial evidence will be sustained on appeal if, on considering all of the evidence, the circumstances form a chain that "`leads so directly to the guilt of the accused as to exclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, any reasonable inference other than guilt.'" State v. Bias, 419 N.W.2d 480, 484 (Minn. 1988) (quoting State v. Wahlberg, 296 N.W.2d 408, 411 (Minn. 1980)).
Olson testified that CAW was acting normally when she left him with Widme, but when she returned, he was unresponsive and began vomiting. There was also expert medical testimony that CAW exhibited several symptoms of shaken baby syndrome, including a subdural hematoma without any external head injury, retinal hemorraghes, bruising on the back of his neck, lethargy, vomiting, and seizures. And Widme's behavior in the emergency room suggested that he wanted to identify an accidental cause for the injury. When the doctor said that the injuries were caused by something more recent than a fall two weeks earlier, Widme became defensive and asked, "Are you accusing me of child abuse?"
Widme contends that this evidence did not meet the county's burden of proof because there was a plausible alternative theory that explained CAW's symptoms. Widme testified that three or four days before CAW was brought to the hospital, he had slipped while carrying CAW to the car in his car seat, and CAW fell to the ground. Olson did not witness the fall, but came outside seconds later and was told what happened. Both parents testified that the baby looked fine. Olson also testified that a neighbor witnessed the fall and approached them to ask if the baby was all right. The neighbor testified that in early September 1998, he saw Widme accidentally slip and drop the baby.
However, the medical evidence contradicted Widme's alternative theory. The medical experts agreed that CAW's injuries occurred within 24 to 48 hours before he was brought into the hospital. Although Widme's medical expert, Dr. John Plunkett, opined that the type of injury suffered by CAW could have occurred if a child, while in a restraining seat, fell from a height of two to three feet, even Plunkett concluded:
If there is no viable history of an accidental fall within 24-48 hours prior to admission to [hospital], I would conclude that [CAW's] injury was caused by the actions of another human being (either intentionally or accidentally).
Also, the trial court did not find the parents' stories regarding CAW's fall from the car seat credible because they failed to recall this incident until the termination of parental rights proceeding began. Neither parent suggested to the doctors in the emergency room that this incident could have caused the injuries, and neither told investigators nor the guardian ad litem about the incident. This was in contrast to CAW's fall two weeks earlier, which both parents told the emergency room doctor about, and for which Olson immediately sought medical advice. Furthermore, although the neighbor testified that he saw Widme slip and drop a baby to the ground, on cross-examination, the neighbor stated that he did not really know when it was that he had witnessed the event.
Considering all of this evidence, the circumstances of CAW's injury, and the nature of the injury itself, demonstrate that it is highly probable that CAW suffered the injury while he was in Widme's care on September 8 and that Widme either actually caused the injury or else failed to prevent it.
Widme also argues that the trial court impermissibly shifted the burden of proof from the county to him by requiring him to provide a credible explanation as to what caused the injury. We disagree.
The trial court found:
Based on the severity of the child's injuries, their recency, the child's marked change in health while in Widme's care, the lack of any credible alternative explanation, and the statements and behavior of Widme in the emergency room, this Court finds that the child was injured in Widme's care and that Widme caused the child's injuries.
The trial court's reference to "the lack of any credible alternative explanation" does not demonstrate that the trial court shifted the burden of proof to Widme. It demonstrates that the trial court considered Widme's alternative explanation for the marked change in CAW's health while in Widme's care and concluded that the alternative explanation was not credible. Then, based on the remaining evidence, the trial court concluded that Widme caused CAW's injury while CAW was in his care.
Trial courts stand in a superior position to appellate courts in assessing the credibility of witnesses. This is particularly true in the context of a case such as this, where the trial court opportunity to observe the parent and other witnesses who are called to testify is so crucial to an accurate evaluation of what is best for the child. Accordingly, on appeal in a termination of parental rights case, while we carefully review the record, we will not overturn the trial court's findings of fact unless those findings are clearly erroneous.
In re Welfare of A.D., 535 N.W.2d 643, 648 (Minn. 1995) (quotations & citations omitted). After carefully reviewing the record, we have found no basis to conclude that the trial court's findings of fact are clearly erroneous.