Termination of Parental Rights Based on Death of Former Child by Blunt Force Trauma to Head Reversed by the Court of Appeals
Posted on March 18, 2009 by Jason C. Brown
In an unpublished decision entitled In re the Matter and Welfare of the Child of BTN and AVD, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed a district court order terminating the parental rights of the child's parents. Judge Bjorkman wrote without dissent.
BTN and AVD are the parents of DD, who was born on February 6, 2007. One week later, Stearns County Human Services filed a petition alleging that DD was a child in need of protection or services because the parent's first child, AD, experienced egregious harm while in their care, resulting in his death. After an emergency protective-care hearing, DD was placed in foster care. The county subsequently determined that AD had experienced egregious harm while in the care of BTN. and AVD. On that basis, the county petitioned to terminate the parental rights of DD's mother and father.
AD was nine months old when he was taken to the emergency room. BTN and AVD told the responders that AD had been standing in front of the couch and had suddenly arched his back and fallen backward onto the carpeted floor. AD was nonresponsive, and the emergency room doctor who examined him concluded that he had suffered severe head trauma. The doctor ordered a CT scan of AD’s head, which revealed a subdural hematoma. AD died during brain surgery. An autopsy was performed, and the medical examiner concluded that AD’s death was a homicide, caused by blunt trauma to the head, which resulted in a skull fracture and a subdural hematoma.
In orders dated November 29, 2007, the district court terminated the parental rights of BTN and AVD based on its determination that a child (not DD, but AD) had experienced egregious harm in their care and that it was in DD’s best interests for both parents’ parental rights to be terminated.
Parent rights may be terminated only for grave and weighty reasons. The court must exercise great caution in termination proceedings, finding such action proper only when the evidence clearly mandates such a result. A district court may terminate parental rights based on a determination:
that a child has experienced egregious harm in the parent’s care which is of a nature, duration, or chronicity that indicates a lack of regard for the child’s well-being, such that a reasonable person would believe it contrary to the best interest of the child or of any child to be in the parent’s care.
Egregious harm means the infliction of bodily harm to a child or neglect of a child which demonstrates a grossly inadequate ability to provide minimally adequate parental care. To terminate the rights of a parent who has not personally inflicted egregious harm on a child, a court must find that the parent either knew or should have known that the child had experienced egregious harm.
On appeal, the parents contended that contend that the district court’s findings were insufficient to meet the "knowledge" standard - and the court of appeals agreed:
The district court found that AD’s fatal injuries were non-accidental and constitute egregious harm. The district court further found that because BTN and AVD were AD’s only caretakers, at least one of them must have caused the egregious harm and that a non-perpetrating parent would have reasonably known of the harm because of AD’s 'noticeable symptoms.' But the finding that a non-perpetrating parent would have observed symptoms is, at most, a finding that the parent knew or should have known that AD was injured. It is not a finding that a non-perpetrating parent would have been reasonably aware that AD had sustained egregious harm. The district court did not determine which parent caused the harm, identify the 'noticeable symptoms,' or find that the symptoms would have reasonably led a non-perpetrating parent to know that AD’s injury was the result of 'some conduct' satisfying the ‘egregious harm’ definition.
Judge Bjorkman concluded:
Because Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1(b)(6), requires a finding that the non-perpetrating parent not only knew of an injury but also knew or should have known that the injury was sustained 'as a result of some conduct satisfying the ‘egregious harm’ definition,' the district court’s findings with respect to a non-perpetrating parent’s knowledge are insufficient.
The court was essentially saying that a non-perpetrating parent cannot be held responsible for egregious harm to a child unless the parent, because of actual or reasonable knowledge, had the opportunity to respond to or protect against the harm. While the district court found that each party gained knowledge of the actions of the other after the suit was initiated by the county, knowledge acquired after the fact does not meet the relevant standard to terminate parental rights.
As noted above, parent rights may be terminated only for grave and weighty reasons under Minnesota law. This case is a prime example of just how far some judges are willing to go to allow a parent to continue to care for their child. Like you, I am shaking my head in disgust. These two parents have seemingly gotten away with the murder of a child based on the "I know nothing" defense, pointing at each other. Bad enough that they are allowed to even conceive another victim...I mean, child. Now, they get to keep it?