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In re Welfare of Children of J.M.

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

August 12, 2013

In the Matter of the Welfare of the Children of: J. M., Parent


Ramsey County District Court File No. 62-JV-12-2848 Cleary, Judge

Robert Lawton, St. Paul, Minnesota (for appellant mother J.M.)

John J. Choi, Ramsey County Attorney, Kathryn M. Eilers, Assistant County Attorney, St. Paul, Minnesota (for respondent Ramsey County)

Sophia Y. Vuelo, St. Paul, Minnesota (for respondent father E.P.)

Bryan B. Carroll, Tomsche, Sonnesyn & Tomsche, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota (for respondent children J.F. and D.M.)

Considered and decided by Connolly, Presiding Judge; Larkin, Judge; and Cleary, Judge.


Appellant challenges the district court order terminating her parental rights, arguing that the record does not support the court's determination that she is a palpably unfit parent; that the county's efforts to reunite the family were inadequate; that the record does not demonstrate that the children were neglected and in foster care; that the record does not support the conclusion that appellant refused or neglected to comply with her parental duties; and that the record does not demonstrate that termination is in the children's best interests. We affirm.


Appellant J.M. is the mother of three children, D.M., J.F., and T.W. D.M. was born on September 21, 1998, J.F. was born on May 4, 2000, and T.W. was born on February 17, 2002. All three children have special needs. D.M. has been diagnosed with attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders. J.F. experiences seizures and has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ADHD, ODD, a learning disorder, and mild mental retardation. At the time of trial, he was taking seven different medications that were administered at specific times throughout the day. J.F. was placed in Northwood Children Services in Duluth, a residential treatment facility for children with emotional and behavioral disorders. T.W. has been diagnosed with significant asthma and has exhibited behavioral issues in school and at home.

J.M. first became involved with child-protection services in March 2004, after D.M. reported to his teacher and social worker at school that J.M. had "popped him on the back" with a belt after he had misbehaved. From 2004–2006, the Ramsey County Community Human Services Department (county) developed various case plans with J.M. to help her learn positive ways to deal with her children's behavior. J.M. was also receiving services through the county that included in-home parenting assistance, family therapy, individual therapy for her and for the children, a children's mental-health worker, a nurse who went to J.M.'s home to administer medication, and Community Alternatives for Disabled Individuals (CADI) services for J.F. In August 2005, following an incident when the children were found on the roof of their home without J.M.'s knowledge, they were removed from J.M.'s home and placed in foster care. T.W. was returned to J.M.'s care within a few months, and J.F. and D.M. were returned to her care in March 2006. In April 2006, another case plan was developed and the county's services continued. Also in 2006, J.M. underwent a psychological assessment and was determined to be an adult with developmental disabilities. As a result, she was eligible to receive developmental-disability services. Christine McGonagle, a social worker with the county, started working with J.M. in January 2006, helping her to find employment, obtain housing, and manage her money.

In May 2011, another report alleged that J.M. had struck D.M. on the back with a clothes hanger. The county determined that J.M. could not manage D.M. and J.F.'s behavioral and mental-health needs and that her case plan goals would be to learn to "manage [the children's] mental health needs and also to develop ways of responding to them, the children and their behaviors, which are extreme, in a way that wasn't verbally or physically abusive." D.M. was removed from J.M.'s care in July 2011, and J.F. was removed from her care in October 2011. Although T.W. remained in J.M.'s care initially, she began displaying behavioral problems in school and at home. J.M. admitted to yelling and swearing at T.W. and generally not getting along with her. Due to safety concerns, T.W. was removed from J.M.'s care in January 2012. According to the county, J.M. had until approximately October 2012 to successfully complete her case plan and reunify with her children, or a "backup" plan would be recommended. J.M.'s case plan included meeting with a therapist; working with professionals to manage her finances in order to afford her basic needs; learning to manage her children's behavior in a way that did not cause them physical or emotional harm; and participating and cooperating with the treatment team, which included all the various professionals involved in her children's care. J.M. was allowed to visit her children while they were in the out-of-home placements.

In August 2012, the county filed a petition to terminate J.M.'s parental rights. The county alleged that J.M. had been "physically abusing [J.F.] and [D.M.] and admitted to the child protection worker that she hit both of them when she got angry." The county also alleged that J.M. struggled to manage her children's behaviors during visits, that she talked inappropriately and negatively to the children during visits, and that she did "not have any sense of what is developmentally appropriate or take into account the children's mental health issues" when she spoke to them. There were no allegations that J.M. physically abused T.W., but the county claimed that J.M. routinely cursed at her, called her names, and threatened her, and that T.W.'s behavior in school and at home deteriorated as a result, leading to her suspension from school. The county detailed the services provided to J.M. and her children to correct the conditions that led to the out-of-home placements, which included child-protection services, foster care, child and adult mental-health services, in-home parenting assistance, family therapy, psychiatric services, CADI services, All Children Excel program services, and residential treatment. Finally, the county alleged that it was in the children's best interests that J.M.'s parental rights be terminated. J.M. denied the petition, and a bench trial was held in November 2012.

At trial, J.M. testified that she had learned how to discipline her children at a parenting class that she attended in 2005. She explained that she had learned to "stop hollering and cussing and screaming and yelling." She denied that she ever hit or "whooped" her children with a belt or a clothes hanger, and she denied ever admitting that she had done so. When asked about the incident in May 2011, she explained that she and D.M. were in an argument over the remote control and that D.M. grabbed her and slammed her against the wall. J.M. stated that she took her anger out on D.M. and that she "whack[ed] him in the back" with a piece of the window blinds. She stated, "That's how he got the bruise on his back. I didn't hit him with the clothes hanger. And I didn't know the thing was going to put a bruise on his back."

Jennifer Keppers, the program director at Robert E. Miller Minnesota Community Services (REM), also testified at trial. REM provides services to people with disabilities, and from 2004 to 2006, the agency worked with J.M. on parenting skills and communication during in-home parenting-assistance sessions. During that time, Keppers's concerns about J.M.'s parenting included the lack of routine and structure and J.M.'s failure to talk or interact with her children. Keppers explained that J.M. would listen to instructions about how she could improve her parenting skills, but that she would not retain the lessons and could not apply the skills when situations arose again.

Keppers explained that, when REM became involved with J.M. again in 2012, the agency's goals were similar to the goals set when the agency worked with J.M. from 2004 to 2006. REM was working with J.M. on communication so that she would not physically or verbally abuse her children to gain their compliance. At the time of the trial, J.M. had not met any of the goals that Keppers had set for her in February 2012. Keppers testified that she did not believe that J.M. had changed her parenting style or that J.M. would be an appropriate care provider for her children.

Carmen Ella Schempp, a supervisor at Northwood Children Services, worked with J.F. and testified that she had frequently talked with J.M. on the telephone and had met J.M. in person approximately eight to twelve times. Although J.M. would ask questions about how J.F. was doing or how his medications were working, Schempp testified that she would have to remind J.M. about things that they had discussed during prior conversations. Schempp also testified that J.M.'s understanding of J.F.'s needs and behaviors was simplified and that J.M. had a difficult time tracking the nature of his emotional health. Schempp explained that, when J.M. visited J.F., the visits were difficult because staff members needed to supervise J.M. and J.F. to make sure that their conversations remained appropriate and contained information that was appropriate for a child of J.F.'s age. ...

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