“The family only represents one aspect … of a human being’s functions and activities.”
Havelock Ellis, The Task of Social Hygiene (1884)
Termination of parental rights litigation constitutes one genre of Minnesota Court of Appeals cases that attract scant attention.
Although the proceedings are significant to the parties and families involved in them, the relative disregard by the public at large is because the litigation typically consists of termination decisions based on carefully constructed findings of horrific parenting, usually devoid of cutting-edge legal issues, that almost always are affirmed under the broad clear and convincing evidentiary standard, heightened from the usual preponderance of evidence in most civil cases, which is of significance to the litigants and their lawyers in these cases, but of only marginal legal interest to others not involved in the proceeding.
A trio of cases concurrently decided this spring by the appellate court, from three different sections of the state, illustrates this pattern, except one of them reflected a real rarity — remand for further findings.
The Minnesota appellate court decisions came a month before the 110th celebration of Mother’s Day on Sunday, May 14, this year.
The maternal commemoration, which dates back to ancient Greek springtime rites, was launched by a West Virginia woman, Anna Jarvis, in 1908, although Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the Civil War era “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was a progenitor promoter of the event long before it became officially recognized by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914 as falling on the second Sunday of May. Its quasi-official status preceded other similar familial parenting festivities such as Father’s Day.
The day set aside for honoring paternity had been around for quite a while but was not officially recognized until 1972 by President Richard Nixon as the third Sunday in June, which incidentally happened to be fewer than 48 hours after of the Watergate break-in that ultimately doomed his presidency. It was followed seven years later by Grandparents Day recognized by President Jimmy Carter as the first Sunday after Labor Day.
The typical type of parental problems that underlie any termination case was reflected in an affirmance of a ruling regarding the disposition of the parental rights a couple regarding their two children in In re the welfare of the children of: J.L. and D.A., 2017 Minn. App. LEXIS 350 (Minn. App. April 17, 2017)(unpublished).
The Wilkin County District Court terminated the parental rights based upon three statutory grounds for termination under Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b), including refusal and neglect to comply with parental duties; palpable unfitness; and failure of reasonable efforts to correct conditions that led to the placement of the children outside the home. It also found that the termination was in the children’s best interest.
The parents challenged the first three prongs on appeal, conceding that termination “met the best interests” standard.
The appellate court affirmed, holding that reasonable efforts failed to correct the conditions that led to the placement of two children, who were 8 and 2 years old, respectively, at the time of the appeal outside the home in foster care after extensive efforts to reunite the family. The two parents had a long history of drug and alcohol abuse and their living conditions of the home were extremely poor, including lack of running water. Although the parents had made some progress in their efforts to stop the drug abuse, their relapse reflected clear and convincing evidence that this condition had not been corrected. Although their progress in dealing with their drug problem abuse was admirable, the District Court did not make a mistake in terminating their rights and, therefore, the termination was upheld.
A father who had his parental rights terminated by the Rice County District Court was unsuccessful in challenging the determination on grounds that the county failed to make reasonable efforts to unite him with his two children, age 2 and 3 years old, respectively, in In re the Welfare of the Children of: R.M.K. and K.S.F., 2017 Minn. App. LEXIS 352 (Minn. App. April 17, 2017) (unpublished). The District Court terminated the rights of both the father and mother, who did not appeal. The father’s rights were terminated on grounds that he had engaged in domestic assault against the mother and was not able to consistently provide for the children’s needs.
The appellate court affirmed, noting that while the father “complied with several aspects of … his case plan,” he failed in other respects, including the failure to take responsibility for his domestic violence, not engaging in parenting classes, or working with a parenting mentor, and not obtaining stable housing. While the District Court finding that the father had made improvement and done as much as he could, its order terminating his rights on grounds that the best interests of the children was not erroneous. The evidence showed that the children were neglected and were in foster care, which warranted termination under § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(8). The trial court’s findings warranted termination on this basis.
The father’s contention that the county failed to make reasonable efforts to unite him with his children, as required by Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 8, was unsuccessful. Because the children were not in the father’s custody, the county was not obligated to provide services to him, although it did so at the direction of the trial court. In doing so, it provided an evaluation of the father, and provided information to him about parental education and housing available in the area. In the absence of a transcript and on the limited record available, the county seemed to make reasonable efforts to unite the father with the children. Despite the father’s commendable efforts to develop parenting skills and establish a parenting relationship with his two young children, there was no abuse of discretion by the trial court in terminating his rights.
A mother was unsuccessful in setting aside termination of her rights with respect to her 5-year old child in Koochiching County, but did manage to obtain a remand for best interest of the child in In re the Welare of the Child of J.M.L., 2017 Minn. App. LEXIS 341 (Minn. App. April 17, 2017)(unpublished). The District Court ruled that the mother had failed to produce sufficient evidence to rebut a presumption of unfitness arising from prior termination of her parental rights, along with other grounds for the mother’s termination, after the father voluntarily terminated his rights.
The appellate court affirmed most of the trial court’s decision, noting that the mother’s parental rights were terminated to three of her children by default 11 years earlier, because she was chemically dependent, educationally neglected her children and failed to cooperate with services offered by the county, among other matters. With that backdrop, the present case arose after the mother, initially fully compliant with a case plan prepared by the social worker, later faltered. The child’s father, who was a pedophile, had a history of abuse towards children, was removed from the marital home for a while, after which the mother “failed to cooperate with the county.” After a termination petition was filed, the mother continued to socially interact with the father, which prompted the termination proceeding because of concerns about ensuring the safety of the child.
The presumption that the mother was unfit, due to the prior involuntary termination, was properly invoked under Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(4). However, that presumption is easily rebuttable, the mother did so in this case. However, the trial court’s finding that the county produced clear and convincing evidence of unpalpable unfitness, was upheld, irrespective of the presumption. While the court felt the mother’s parenting skills had improved significantly, there was significant concern regarding her ability to ensure the child’s safety because of her continued relationship with the pedophilic father. The efforts that the mother is making to separate herself from him were “superficial and pretextual.” Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that the mother was palpably unfit as a parent.
The drawing of an adverse inference against the mother because she failed to call her therapist as a witness to testify concerning her progress and treatment, was erroneous. However, the error was harmless, because the mother’s testimony about her progress was not credible.
However, the trial court did not properly explain its finding concerning the best interest of the child, which warranted a remand. Although making an “explicit finding [of] … best interests,” the lower court termination ruling does not contain any specific analysis relating to the reasoning underlying the best interest finding. Because the appellate court will not infer a bets interest analysis from inadequate findings, the case must be sent back for further fact finding to allow the District Court to explain its best interest finding.
These cases show the difficulties of successfully challenging a parental termination proceeding, which usually did not arise until there is ample evidence of substantial parenting problems. The chances for overturning those determinations on appeal are, as illustrated in these cases, are even slimmer.
Grounds for parental unfitness for termination of rights:
- A “consistent” pattern of improper conduct before the child;
- The existence of specific conditions directly relating to parent-child relationship; and
- Pattern or condition makes parent unable for the reasonably foreseeable future to serve as parent.
This article was originally published in Minnesota Lawyer.