County Can't Terminate Parental Rights Just Because Dad Has Low I.Q.

Minnesota case law summary by Attorney Richard Clem: termination of parental rights, Minn Stat 260C.301.

In the Matter of the Welfare of the Children of: B. M., J. M. and C. G., Parents. MN termination of parental rights, Minn Stat 260C.301

C.G. was an adult resident of Becker County, Minnesota, with an IQ of about 73. Because of his below-average intellectual functioning, he received independent living assistance from the county. He received about 10 hours per week of services from an adult-protection services provider, and had a representative to help him manage his money. He had been employed by a sandwich shop and a department store. In addition to his other job duties, he had been entrusted with the duty of opening and closing the stores. He later supported himself with Retirement and Survivors Disability Insurance benefits. He lived with his mother.

He became involved with a woman in 2011 and lived with her. He fathered a child, S.O., with the woman, but later determined that she was taking advantage of him and asked her to move out. The woman had a husband who had just been released from jail in Missouri, and she moved back to him. She eventually returned to Minnesota, and C.G. met his daughter for the first time. Child Protection became concerned with S.O. and the woman's other children, and eventually the children were placed in foster care.

When it was determined that C.G. was the father, he became a party to the parental termination case, and a hearing for termination of his parental rights was held in Becker County District Court in 2013.

The county's witnesses testified that C.G. had a good relationship with the daughter, but he was not fit to parent on his own. The case worker testified that he "deserves to see her and be involved in her life" but that his mental impairment posed a risk. She also testified that in the past, C.G. had been "living in filth" with his brother, and that the brother had been involved with child pornography. But the evidence showed that C.G. had nothing to do with these illegal activities. He asked the court to be given a chance to be his father, and he stated that he was willing to have the county check on him, and that he would get advice when needed from his mother or the county.

But the trial court, Judge Peter Irvine, declined to give that chance. The trial judge held that “cognitive deficiencies precluded C.G. from having the daughter in his custody on a full time basis, and that it was in the child's best interests to stay with her half siblings with a new family that could provide stability and safety.

C.G., through Detroit Lakes attorney Timothy H. Dodd, decided to take the case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. He argued that the mental impairment alone was not enough to justify termination of his parental rights. He also argued that the county should have made more efforts to reunited him with his child.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the father. Minnesota Statute 260C.301 requires the county to show that a parent is "palpably unfit" because of a consistent pattern of specific conduct. The court agreed that the father's mental handicap was not enough to meet this high standard. In fact, the court looked at earlier precedents and didn't find a single case in which a mental impairment, standing alone, was enough to terminate parental rights. The court noted that in this case, the father was always cooperative and had a positive demeanor. Even though they conceded that he had a good relationship with his daughter, the county argued that the father had to "struggle" to meet his own basic needs. But the court stated that a parent's struggle is not enough.

For these reasons, the Court of Appeals reversed the district court's ruling, and send the case back for further proceedings complying with the statute.

No. A13-2025 (Minn. Ct. App. April 21, 2014).

Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.


Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).

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