A man from Detroit Lakes, Minn., regained parental rights to his young daughter Monday when the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that those rights had been wrongfully terminated based solely on his mental impairment.
The court ruled that there was no evidence that the father's intellectual impairment interfered with his ability to be part of a parent-child relationship. It also noted that Becker County District Court had failed to find that child protection had undertaken reasonable efforts to reunite the man with his 2½-year-old child.
While the ruling does not mean the child will live with her father full-time, it upholds his identity and rights as her father, including his access to her.
"He was overjoyed with the ruling," said Tim Dodd, the man's attorney. "The case stands for the proposition that a parent ought to have a chance. It's all he ever wanted."
In the ruling, Judge Larry Stauber wrote that the Appeals Court couldn't find any cases affirming the termination of parental rights based only on a parent's mental impairment.
The father, who is in his early 30s, has below-average intellectual functioning and an IQ of about 73. Dodd said that number seems low, citing his client's ability to run a local sandwich shop by himself, including being entrusted with opening and closing it.
The man, who financially supports himself, receives about 10 hours of home visits from county social workers each month to help him live independently. He does not live alone; his mother moved in with him after her divorce, Dodd said.
Witnesses testified that the father's disability hadn't led to negative behavior toward his child or other children, and that they believe his good relationship with his daughter should be maintained.
Assistant Becker County Attorney Jennifer Knutson said Monday afternoon that her office hasn't decided if it will appeal the ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The county will continue to work with the father because the county still has an open child-protection case regarding his family, she said.
The earlier court ruling
In March 2012, Becker County child protection services became concerned about the children in the care of the 2½-year-old's mother, whose parental rights to several of her other children had been terminated. The district court reviewed concerns that the girl and two other siblings in the woman's care were being neglected, and they were placed in foster care.
In late 2012, a case plan was developed that included parenting classes and permitted the father weekly supervised visits with his daughter. He completed the plan as the mother consented to termination of her parental rights.
Becker County's case seeking termination of the father's parental rights went to trial last August.
At the time, a psychologist who performed a parenting evaluation on the father said his relationship with his daughter was beneficial but "he can't parent 24/7." She said he could co-parent effectively with the help of his own mother, but that there were concerns about her health.
County witnesses testified in district court that the father lacked good judgment about the people he associated with, noting that some had taken advantage of him in the past. Others testified that his daughter would soon surpass her father's mental abilities.
The father told the district court that he had taken care of his daughter on several weekends without incident. If he encountered problems, he said, he would seek advice from his mother or the county.
The district court terminated his parental rights, saying that his daughter would be better off in a more stable household and that his cognitive deficiencies should preclude him from having his daughter on a full-time basis.
The appeals court ruling
On appeal, the court had to determine whether the termination was supported by clear and convincing evidence that it was done in the child's best interests. In other words, "the mental retardation must directly affect the ability to parent," the ruling said.
Stauber cited a rights-termination case in which a father suffered permanent brain damage in an accident and couldn't control his anger and the child's mother had a personality disorder.
In the Detroit Lakes father's case, Stauber said some the county's concerns were speculative and remain to be seen, such as the worry that he will be unable to keep up with his child's development.
The county also had said it was worried the father might show poor judgment in an emergency.
But Dodd said "you would have to go a long way" to find a man with his client's personal character. He recounted the father's story of how he felt like the proudest dad in America one day when he took his little girl to church.
Dodd's client will now work with the county to furnish additional services for child care, expanding the time the man spends with his daughter and seeing "how far he can take it," the attorney said. If he gets in over his head, he will ask for help, Dodd said, adding, "He wouldn't place her at risk."
It remains to be seen if his client will become an effective full-time parent, Dodd said.
"I know, at a minimum, he could be a heck of good visitation dad," he said.