The termination of parental rights is an extraordinary power possessed by District Court judges. In recent weeks, however, the Minnesota Court of Appeals has reversed decisions arising out of Chisago and Hennepin County.
In In re the Matter of ECS, Mother was a parent to a number of children. The family came to the attention of Chisago County 19 times in 12 years.
The incident that gave rise to the termination of Mother’s parental rights occurred in January 2017. The Chisago Lakes School District reported several unexcused absences and that letters and phone calls to Mother were not successful in correcting the absences.
In a subsequent interview with a social worker, Mother reported that she struggled to get the kids to school because of her own health issues. Mother also told the social worker that her boyfriend (a man with a criminal history and substance abuse issues) would care for the children on nights that she worked.
CHIPS action commenced: After attempting to provide services, the social worker determined that Mother was not addressing the “educational concerns” of the children. The county filed a CHIPS petition. Two months later, Mother admitted that the children were habitually truant. Adjudication was stayed on the condition that Mother comply with the case plan submitted to the court. Mother also agreed the children would not be placed in her boyfriend’s care.
Shortly before the CHIPS admission, Mother’s boyfriend was charged with second-degree controlled substance possession. A search warrant executed after the CHIPS admission yielded a glass pipe near the children’s bedroom in Mother’s home. The pipe tested positive for methamphetamine.
Removal of children: Law enforcement removed the children from the home. The District Court lifted the stay of the CHIPS proceeding and ordered Mother to comply with the provisions of the out-of-home case plan. Five months later, the court adopted a placement plan. The plan included 20 objectives for Mother to satisfy.
Petition to terminate: Six months later, the county filed a petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights, alleging: (1) Mother failed to satisfy the duties of a parent; (2) Mother was palpably unfit to parent; and (3) reasonable efforts failed to correct the conditions leading to the out-of-home placement.
During the trial, several social workers testified about Mother’s partial compliance with her case plan, including chemical use assessments, neuropsychological testing, and a parenting assessment. They also testified that Mother obtained employment, located stable housing and abstained from drugs and alcohol.
Despite completing many of the case plan requirements, the social workers testified that Mother did not gain insight from the services provided by the County – citing a lack of attending therapy sessions, follow-up medical appointments and missing some of her supervised parenting visits. Several experts testified about Mother’s psychological shortcomings, along with the challenges facing the children.
The District Court found that Mother was not credible because she “testified in her own self-interest,” and that the county provided reasonable efforts to reunite the family. Mother’s parental rights were terminated on the three grounds raised by the county.
On appeal, Mother argued, among other things, that the District Court erred in concluding that the county made reasonable efforts to reunite the family.
No reasonable efforts: Judge Diane Bratvold reiterated that “reasonable efforts at rehabilitation are services that go beyond mere matters of form so as to include real, genuine assistance.” She suggested that for the county’s efforts to be “reasonable” the services offered must be: (1) relevant to the safety and protection of the child; (2) adequate to meet the needs of the child and family; (3) culturally appropriate; (4) available and accessible; (5) consistent and timely; and (6) realistic under the circumstances.
In this instance, the Court of Appeals found that the case plan did not specifically address the family’s needs.
A case plan must: (1) identify the specific reasons that a child was placed in foster care; (2) explain the changes a parent must make in order for the child to be returned; (3) explain the services available to make that happen; (4) be reflected in writing prepared jointly with a parent; (5) be signed by the parent; (6) be approved by the court; and (7) be explained to all involved parties.
As an initial matter, Bratvold noted some uncertainty as to whether Mother was involved with the preparation of the case plan and took issue with the fact that Mother did not sign the plan. Mother also asserted that the plan was never explained to her.
The Court of Appeals opined that “even if mother knew of the plan’s requirements, the county’s alleged failure to include her in the drafting and obtain her signature violates the statutory requirements.”
More fundamentally, the court concluded that Mother was correct in asserting that the case plan did not include services adequate to meet the needs of the family. Nor did the plan sufficiently explain changes that Mother needed to make for the children to return home.
First, Bratvold suggested that the case plan included few services or requirements aimed at overcoming Mother’s parenting deficiencies.
Second, the court noted that the county failed to provide “real, genuine assistance” relating to Mother’s neuropsychological and mental health issues.
Third, the Court of Appeals took issue with the fact that nothing in the case plan addressed educating Mother about how her boyfriend’s criminal history might impact the children.
Ultimately, Bratvold suggested that “we are left with the conviction that the…case plan is a detailed boilerplate checklist.”
No meaningful opportunity: The Court of Appeals also reversed on the basis that the county did not provide Mother with a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate an ability to appropriately parent the children. No supervised visits were permitted. No opportunities for Mother to participate in specialized care for the children were afforded.
Mother’s sincerity: Finally, the Court of Appeals noted that the record did not support the District Court’s conclusion that Mother’s completion of the case plan was “rote.” No evidence was offered by the county to demonstrate that Mother lacked sincerity in her efforts.
The In re the Matter of RS case is less complex than the ECS matter, but nevertheless important. The District Court terminated Father’s parental rights on the basis that he was: (1) palpably unfit to parent; and (2) failed to comply with parental duties.
Palpably unfit: The Court found that Father was palpably unfit because he lacked a “higher level understanding of his child’s needs.”
From the standpoint of medical needs, the Court of Appeals found that no instance was identified in which the child went without services or faced harm from a lack of them.
As to educational needs, the District Court found that Father “does not understand the benefit of preschool.” However, the Court of Appeals opined that preschool attendance is not compulsory, and that the child was only 2 years old.
Parental duties: The District Court also found that Father failed to comply with his parental duties, but cited no specific incident in which that was the case.
On such a limited record, the Court of Appeals reversed.
There is no more sacred relationship than that of a parent and child. For that reason, termination of parental rights cases involve the highest of stakes.
With so many statutory protections afforded to parents, there are many pits and traps the county can fall into as part of the termination process. Be mindful of the substantial burden it faces, and your client may prevail on any number of grounds.
Jason and Cynthia Brown, husband and wife, are the founding shareholders in the Brown Law Offices, P.A., a northwest Twin Cities divorce and family law firm.