Nicollet County District Court File No. J60150508
Considered and decided by Kalitowski, Presiding Judge, Hudson, Judge, and
I. Judicial review of an agency's reasonable efforts at rehabilitation and reunification in a parental rights termination case is not a constitutionally guaranteed right. Therefore, the legislature's elimination of the requirement that agencies make reasonable efforts when there has been a prior involuntary termination of parental rights does not violate the Minnesota Constitution.
II. The statutory presumption of palpable unfitness in Minn. Stat. §á260C.301, subd.á1(b)(4) (2002) does not violate due process and equal protection rights.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hudson, Judge
Appellants' parental rights to their first four children were involuntarily terminated. Appellants now challenge the involuntary termination of their parental rights to their fifth child, M.T. Minn. Stat. §á260C.301, subd.á1(b)(4) (2002), creates a presumption of palpable unfitness to be a party to the parent-and-child relationship where parental rights to another child have been previously involuntarily terminated. In these circumstances, there is no requirement that reasonable efforts be made to rehabilitate and reunify the parents prior to a termination of parental rights. Minn. Stat. §á260C.001, subd.á3 (2002). Appellants argue that the statutory presumption of palpable unfitness in section 260C.301, subdivision 1(b)(4), unconstitutionally eliminates judicial review of an agency's reasonable efforts at rehabilitation and reunification, and violates appellants' due process and equal protection rights. Appellants also argue that the record does not support by clear and convincing evidence that appellants are palpably unfit to parent. We affirm.
Appellants P.T. and A.T. are the parents of five children. The parental rights to their first four children, ages six, five, three, and two, were involuntarily terminated following a June 6, 2001, jury trial in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. On July 16, 2001, Nicollet County Social Services (NCSS) learned from LaCrosse County Social Services (LCSS) that A.T. was pregnant with the couple's fifth child, and was believed to be living in Nicollet County. LCSS was concerned about the unborn child due to appellants' neglect of their first four children. Gayle Robinson (Robinson), a child protection specialist for Nicollet County, was assigned to the case, and subsequently learned that A.T. was living with her parents in St. Peter, Minnesota. Robinson later learned that A.T. gave birth to M.T. on July 17, 2001, in Waconia, Minnesota.
From July 17, to August 14, 2001, Robinson worked to gather information regarding appellants' current situation. According to Robinson, appellants were very hostile and difficult to work with. In addition, Robinson had difficulty with P.T.'s mother, J.W., who was similarly hostile and uncooperative. On Augustá15, 2001, Robinson requested that the Nicollet County Attorney's Office file a child in need of protection or services (CHIPS) petition on behalf of M.T. because Robinson believed that M.T. would suffer the same neglect as M.T.'s four siblings. Robinson based her belief on the fact that appellants did not seem willing to accept responsibility for their neglect of their other four children and seemed unrealistic in their plans for parenting M.T. NCSS filed a CHIPS petition on August 28, 2001, and sought immediate custody of M.T. At the CHIPS hearing on August 29, 2001, the district court denied NCSS' request for immediate custody, ordering that M.T. remain in the custody of appellants and continue to reside with A.T. at her parents' home. The district court also ordered that appellants' custody of M.T. be conditioned upon their cooperation with NCSS and guardian ad litem Sharla Boyer (Boyer). The court also appointed counsel from the public defender's office to represent appellants.
A pretrial hearing was scheduled for September 17, 2001. But prior to the hearing, NCSS and the guardian ad litem informed the district court that on Septemberá10, 2001, A.T. contacted NCSS and voluntarily placed M.T. in foster care. A.T. expressed concern for M.T.'s safety because P.T. and P.T.'s mother had threatened to take M.T. away from her. A.T. also stated that she and P.T. continually argued. According to Robinson, A.T. felt sad and guilty because of the termination of parental rights of her other children and wished to immediately be relieved of her responsibility for M.T. NCSS accommodated A.T.'s request and arranged for A.T. to sign a voluntary placement agreement with NCSS for sixty days of foster care placement. The agreement stated that the agency agreed to develop a written out-of-home placement plan within 30 days. NCSS also told A.T. that the agency would arrange for visitations between M.T. and appellants during the time M.T. was in the agency's care to preserve the parent-child relationships.
The next day, A.T. again contacted NCSS. This time A.T. requested information about placing M.T. in protective custody because, according to A.T., P.T. and his mother had continued to threaten her. On September 12, 2001, A.T. contacted NCSS with second thoughts about voluntarily placing M.T. in foster care. A.T. said her friends had pressured her to get M.T. out of foster care, and that her parents were upset with her for placing M.T. in foster care. A.T. said that she would contact NCSS about her final decision concerning M.T.'s voluntary placement. A.T. never contacted NCSS.
On September 13, 2001, NCSS requested that the St. Peter Police Department place a 72-hour hold on M.T. for her safety. Robinson attempted to contact A.T. between Septemberá12, and Septemberá14, 2001, but was unable to locate her. In addition, Boyer informed the district court that she believed it was in M.T.'s best interest to remain in foster care. During this period, NCSS made no further attempts at rehabilitation or reunification of M.T. and appellants.
The district court held a hearing on the 72-hour hold on September 17, 2001 and found that M.T.'s health, safety, or welfare would be immediately endangered if M.T. were released to the care of appellants. The district court ordered that M.T. be placed in the temporary legal and physical custody of NCSS. The district court also ordered that appellants each undergo individual parenting and psychological assessments, and were allowed supervised visitation with M.T., to be arranged through NCSS. Visitation was scheduled for two hours, once a week. The district court continued the November 21, 2001, CHIPS petition trial, pending the results of the parenting assessments.
NCSS received the results of the parenting assessments in the form of parental capacity evaluations completed by Counseling Services of Southern Minnesota, Inc. Appellants were interviewed extensively and underwent a battery of psychological testing. In addition, reports from Wisconsin child protection services were received and reviewed. Both evaluations recommended that appellants' parental rights be terminated. Specifically, with regard to A.T., the report found that A.T.'s dependent personality disorder prevents her from parenting properly. A.T. does not remember being nurtured, and she does not know how to be nurturing. A.T.'s personality disorder consists of deeply engrained behaviors and a highly inflexible pattern of functioning, likely resulting in a poor outcome with respect to treatment. Furthermore, A.T. does not know how to meet her own basic needs, much less those of M.T. Because of her personality disorder, A.T. relies exclusively on P.T. to care for her and help her with decision-making. The report also found that, despite past rehabilitative efforts, A.T. had failed to create a safe environment for M.T. The report concluded that it was highly likely that M.T.'s psychological, emotional, and physical well-being would be negatively impacted if M.T. were returned to appellants.
Similarly, the report concluded that, despite a variety of rehabilitative efforts, P.T. had failed in creating a safe environment for M.T. In addition, the report concluded that"P.T. lacks the parenting skills necessary to care for a young child." Furthermore, P.T. is diagnosed with an antisocial personality disorder and fails to conform to social norms, consistently acts in an irresponsible manner, lacks remorse for his actions, and fails to plan ahead. With regard to P.T.'s interaction with M.T., the report found that P.T. was not responsive to M.T.'s emotional needs, and he appeared to have significant deficits involving stimulation of M.T.'s needs, engaging her, or becoming attuned to her. Moreover, P.T.'s high level of defensiveness prevents him from adapting his behavior to different circumstances and indicates that he is likely unamenable to treatment.
On December 18, 2001, in response to the parental capacity evaluations, NCSS dismissed the CHIPS petition and filed a petition for termination of parental rights (TPR). The district court held the TPR trial on July 3, 2002. Brenda Todd-Bense (Todd-Bense), of Counseling Services of Southern Minnesota, Inc., testified as to the parental capacity report findings, and reiterated her conclusion that appellants' parental rights should be terminated. Steve Solberg (Solberg) of NCSS, testified as to difficulties in supervised visitation between appellants and M.T. Solberg said that appellants claimed they were unable to make visitation because of their lack of transportation. But Solberg noted that appellants were able to meet their other transportation needs, including trips to Wisconsin, without any apparent problems. Solberg also testified that, during supervised visitation, appellants had little physical contact with M.T. In addition, Boyer recommended the termination of appellants' parental rights, adopting the results of the parental capacity evaluations. Appellants did not testify or present any witnesses, relying instead on cross-examination of the state's witnesses. Following the TPR proceedings, the trial court concluded that appellants were palpably unfit to parent M.T. and terminated appellants' parental rights. This appeal followed.
I. Does the statutory presumption of palpable unfitness in Minn. Stat. §á260C.301, subd. 1(b)(4) (2002), unconstitutionally eliminate judicial review of an agency's reasonable efforts at rehabilitation and reunification?
II. Does the statutory presumption of palpable unfitness in Minn. Stat. §á260C.301, subd.á1(b)(4) (2002), violate due process and equal protection rights?
III. Does the record support by clear and convincing evidence that appellants are palpably unfit to parent M.T.?
"In evaluating challenges to the constitutionality of statutes, this court recognizes that the interpretation of statutes is a question of law." In re Blilie, 494 N.W.2d 877, 881 (Minn. 1993) (citation omitted). Accordingly, we are not bound by the district court's legal conclusions. Id. "Minnesota statutes are presumed constitutional, and our power to declare a statute unconstitutional should be exercised with extreme caution and only when absolutely necessary." In re Haggerty, 448 N.W.2d 363, 364 (Minn. 1989) (citation omitted). Appellants shoulder the burden of ...