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IN RE: the WELFARE OF the CHILD OF: S.B.G. (2022)

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Court of Appeals of Minnesota.

IN RE: the WELFARE OF the CHILD OF: S.B.G., Parent.

A22-0589

Decided: October 24, 2022

Considered and decided by Larson, Presiding Judge; Johnson, Judge; and Tracy M. Smith, Judge. Travis J. Smith, Kayla M. Johnson, Slayton, Minnesota (for appellant-father S.B.G.) Joseph M. Sanow, Nobles County Attorney, Worthington, Minnesota (for respondent Nobles County Community Service Agency) Aaron M. Kinser, Kinser Law Office, P.L.L.C., Worthington, Minnesota (for respondent-mother I.Q.) Carma Nordahl, Sheldon, Iowa (guardian ad litem)

OPINION

S.B.G.’s parental rights to a child were terminated because he is required to register as a predatory offender. S.B.G. argues that the district court erred by misinterpreting the statutes that authorize termination of parental rights based on a requirement to register as a predatory offender. We conclude that the district court properly interpreted the applicable statutes. We also conclude that the district court did not err by finding that the petitioning county was not required to make reasonable efforts to reunify S.B.G. with the child or by concluding that termination is in the child's best interests. Therefore, we affirm.

FACTS

In November 2019, the state filed a criminal complaint against S.B.G. in Nobles County alleging, among other charges, five violations of Minnesota Statutes section 609.352, subdivision 2a (2018), which prohibits an adult from using a variety of means of electronic communication to commit certain acts toward a child “with the intent to arouse the sexual desire of any person.” The state alleged one count under paragraph (1), which prohibits the act of soliciting a child to engage in sexual conduct; two counts under paragraph (2), which prohibits the act of engaging in electronic communication with a child “relating to or describing sexual conduct”; and two counts under paragraph (3), which prohibits the act of electronically distributing to a child a communication or a photographic or video image that relates to or describes sexual conduct. See Minn. Stat. § 609.352, subd. 2a(1)-(3).

In December 2020, S.B.G. pleaded guilty to one of the five counts: a count alleging a violation of paragraph (3). S.B.G. admitted that, on or about August 7, 2019, when he was 20 years old, he engaged in electronic communications with a 15-year-old girl in which he described sexual acts. In December 2020, the district court imposed an executed sentence of 36 months of imprisonment. Pursuant to the parties’ plea agreement, the district court dismissed all other charges.

Three months later, in March 2021, I.Q. gave birth to a child, H.Q. Nobles County petitioned the district court to adjudicate H.Q. as a child in need of protection or services (CHIPS). The county then sought to determine the biological father of the child. S.B.G. provided a DNA sample, analysis of which indicated a 99.9999 percent probability that he is the biological father of H.Q.

In December 2021, the county petitioned the district court to terminate S.B.G.’s parental rights to H.Q. on a single statutory ground: Minnesota Statutes section 260C.301, subdivision 1(b)(9), which authorizes the termination of parental rights if a parent has been convicted of any one of certain specified crimes. The matter was tried to the district court on one day in March 2022. The county called two witnesses: the social worker who was assigned to I.Q. during the CHIPS proceedings and the guardian ad litem. The county also introduced eleven documentary exhibits, including eight exhibits relating to S.B.G.’s prior criminal proceedings. S.B.G. called his mother as a witness and testified on his own behalf.

In April 2022, the district court filed a five-page order in which it made findings of fact and concluded that the county had established the alleged statutory ground for termination and that termination would be in H.Q.’s best interests. Accordingly, the district court ordered the termination of S.B.G.’s parental rights to H.Q.

S.B.G. appeals. In his principal brief, he argues that the district court erred for three reasons. In his reply brief, he argues that the district court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction.

ISSUES

I. Did the district court have subject-matter jurisdiction over this termination-of-parental-rights case even though S.B.G. had not been formally adjudicated as a parent of H.Q.?

II. Did the district court err by interpreting Minnesota Statutes section 260C.301, subdivision 1(b)(9) (2020), and section 260.012(g) (2020), to require a prior conviction of any offense that requires registration as a predatory offender, but not to require a prior conviction of one of the offenses expressly and specifically enumerated in Minnesota Statutes section 243.166, subdivision 1b(a) or (b) (2020)?

III. Did the district court err by not considering whether the county made reasonable efforts to reunify H.Q. with S.B.G.?

IV. Did the district court err by concluding that termination of S.B.G.’s parental rights is in H.Q.’s best interests?

ANALYSIS

I.

We begin by considering S.B.G.’s argument that the district court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction over this case on the ground that there is “no legally recognized parent-and-child relationship” between him and H.Q. He notes that he and I.Q. never have been married, that he did not sign the child's birth certificate, and that he did not sign a recognition or declaration of parentage. He asserts that, without a formal adjudication of a parent-child relationship, a district court necessarily lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over a case in which a petitioner seeks to terminate parental rights.

The concept of subject-matter jurisdiction “refers to a court's authority ‘to hear and determine a particular class of actions and the particular questions’ presented to the court for its decision.” Giersdorf v. A & M Constr., Inc., 820 N.W.2d 16, 20 (Minn. 2012) (quoting Robinette v. Price, 214 Minn. 521, 8 N.W.2d 800, 804 (1943)). Whether a court has subject-matter jurisdiction “depends on the scope of the constitutional and statutory grant of authority to the court.” McCullough & Sons, Inc. v. City of Vadnais Heights, 883 N.W.2d 580, 585 (Minn. 2016). A party may raise a question about subject-matter jurisdiction “at any time.” Dead Lake Ass'n, Inc. v. Otter Tail County, 695 N.W.2d 129, 134 (Minn. 2005).

The relevant constitutional provision states, “The district court has original jurisdiction in all civil and criminal cases.” Minn. Const. art. VI, § 3. The jurisdictional statute governing termination of parental rights provides, “The juvenile court has original and exclusive jurisdiction in proceedings concerning ․ the termination of parental rights to a child ․” Minn. Stat. § 260C.101, subd. 2(1) (2020). Similarly, a rule of court provides, “The juvenile court has original and exclusive jurisdiction in proceedings described in Minn. Stat. § 260C.101.” Minn. R. Juv. Prot. P. 24.01, subd. 2; see also McCullough, 883 N.W.2d at 585 (stating that “court rules can also define subject-matter jurisdiction”). In most counties, including Nobles County, the district court is authorized to exercise the jurisdictional authority of the juvenile court. See Minn. Stat. § 484.01, subd. 1(5) (2020); see also Minn. Const. art. VI, § 11; Minn. Stat. §§ 260.019, subd. 1, 260.021, subd. 4, 484.011 (2020).

These provisions of law make clear that the district court had subject-matter jurisdiction over this case, which is among the class of cases known as termination-of-parental-rights cases. We do not doubt that an absence of parentage may be dispositive of the merits of a termination-of-parental-rights case. If a party raises an issue in the district court concerning the existence or non-existence of a party's parentage, that issue may need to be determined. But an alleged absence of parentage does not defeat a district court's subject-matter jurisdiction over a termination-of-parental-rights case. In fact, a district court is authorized by statute “to treat a person determined to be the biological father of a child by a positive test as if the individual were a presumed father under section 257.55.” Minn. Stat. § 260C.150, subd. 2 (2020). In addition, a district court is authorized to establish a party's parentage “according to the requirements of section 257.54,” which is a provision in the Minnesota Parentage Act. Id., subd. 1; see also Minn. Stat. § 257.51-.74 (2020). These statutory provisions confirm that a district court has subject-matter jurisdiction over a case in which a petitioner seeks to terminate a biological father's parental rights even if the biological father's parentage has not been formally adjudicated.

Thus, the district court had subject-matter jurisdiction over this action.

II.

S.B.G.’s primary argument is that the district court erred by concluding that the county proved that his parental rights may be terminated pursuant to section 260C.301, subdivision 1(b)(9).

A.

We begin by identifying the relevant statutory provisions. “The juvenile court may upon petition, terminate all rights of a parent to a child ․ if it finds that one or more of the following conditions exist: ․” Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 1, 1(b). The statute identifies nine conditions that may justify the involuntary termination of parental rights. See id., subd. 1(b). In this case, the county relied on the ninth condition: “the parent has been convicted of a crime listed in section 260.012, paragraph (g), clauses (1) to (5).” Id., subd. 1(b)(9).

Section 260.012 (the statute referenced in section 260C.301, subdivision 1(b)(9)) generally provides that, when a juvenile court assumes jurisdiction over a child who is alleged to be in need of protection or services, “the court shall ensure that reasonable efforts ․ by the social services agency are made to prevent placement or to eliminate the need for removal and to reunite the child with the child's family at the earliest possible time.” Minn. Stat. § 260.012(a) (2020). But section 260.012 provides for exceptions if a CHIPS petition alleges particularly serious circumstances. See id., § 260.012(a)(1)-(7). In addition, paragraph (g) of section 260.012 provides, “Reunification of a child with a parent is not required if the parent has been convicted of” any of five specified categories of crimes. See Minn. Stat. § 260.012(g)(1)-(5) (2020). The fifth category of crimes is “an offense that requires registration as a predatory offender under section 243.166, subdivision 1b, paragraph (a) or (b).” Id., § 260.012(g)(5).

Section 243.166, subdivision 1b (the statute referenced in section 260.012(g)(5)) provides that, in certain circumstances, a person must register as a predatory offender. Minn. Stat. § 243.166, subd. 1b. Specifically, paragraph (a) of section 243.166, subdivision 1b, provides that a person must register if he “was charged with” certain enumerated Minnesota criminal offenses “and convicted of ․ that offense or another offense arising out of the same set of circumstances.” Id., subd. 1b(a). Among the offenses expressly and specifically enumerated in section 243.166, subdivision 1b(a), is the offense in paragraph (1) of section 609.352, subdivision 2a, which prohibits the act of using an electronic communication to solicit a child to engage in sexual conduct. Id., subd. 1b(a)(2)(v) (referencing Minn. Stat. § 609.352, subd. 2a(1)).

The state charged S.B.G. with one count of the offense in paragraph (1) of section 609.352, subdivision 2a, but dismissed that charge after S.B.G. pleaded guilty to another offense. The offense to which S.B.G. pleaded guilty—electronically distributing to a child a communication or photographic or video image that relates to or describes sexual conduct, in violation of paragraph (3) of section 609.352, subdivision 2a—is not among the offenses expressly and specifically enumerated in section 243.166, subdivision 1b(a).

B.

S.B.G. argues that section 260C.301, subdivision 1(b)(9), does not authorize the termination of his parental rights because he merely was charged with, but was not convicted of, an offense that is enumerated in section 243.166, subdivision 1b(a) or (b). He argues that section 260C.301, subdivision 1(b)(9), and the statutes referenced therein authorize the termination of parental rights only if a person was convicted of an offense that is enumerated in section 243.166, subdivision 1b(a) or (b). He contends that the relevant statutes are unambiguous in their meaning.

S.B.G. argues in the alternative that, if the relevant statutes are deemed to be ambiguous, the ambiguity should be resolved according to the canon of constitutional avoidance. Specifically, S.B.G. contends that, if this court were to adopt the interpretation urged by the county, his parental rights could be terminated based solely on a prosecutor's decision to charge him with an enumerated offense, which would be a sufficient basis for registration if the charge was supported by probable cause. See State v. Haukos, 847 N.W.2d 270, 274 (Minn. App. 2014). S.B.G. contends further that a termination of parental rights based only on a charge (but not a conviction) of an enumerated offense would violate a person's constitutional rights, including the right to due process and the fundamental right to parent a child. See Werlich v. Schnell, 958 N.W.2d 354, 364-65 (Minn. 2021) (concluding that appellant alleged justiciable claim that predatory-offender registration requirement violated constitutional right to parent) (citing SooHoo v. Johnson, 731 N.W.2d 815, 820 (Minn. 2007)).

In response, the county argues that the relevant statutes are unambiguous in providing for the termination of parental rights if a parent is required to register as a predatory offender pursuant to the provisions of section 243.166, subdivision 1b(a) or (b), regardless of whether the parent was convicted of an enumerated offense.

The parties’ arguments require the court to engage in statutory interpretation. “The first step in statutory interpretation is to determine whether the statute's language, on its face, is ambiguous.” In re Welfare of S.R.K., 911 N.W.2d 821, 827 (Minn. 2018) (quotation omitted). To determine whether a statutory provision is ambiguous or unambiguous, we look to the plain meaning of the statute based on “the common and ordinary meanings” of the words used. State v. Thonesavanh, 904 N.W.2d 432, 436 (Minn. 2017). “ ‘A statute is ambiguous only if it is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation.’ ” Id. at 435 (quoting 500, LLC v. City of Minneapolis, 837 N.W.2d 287, 290 (Minn. 2013)). If a statute is unambiguous, then we apply the plain language of the statute. In re Welfare of Children of J.D.T., 946 N.W.2d 321, 327 (Minn. 2020) (quotation omitted). If the language in the statute is ambiguous, “then we may apply the canons of construction to resolve the ambiguity.” Thonesavanh, 904 N.W.2d at 435.

We first consider whether the district court's and the county's interpretation of the relevant statutes is a reasonable interpretation. Section 260C.301, subdivision 1(b)(9), permits a district court to terminate parental rights if it finds “that the parent has been convicted of a crime listed in section 260.012, paragraph (g), clauses (1) to (5).” One of the five categories of crimes listed in section 260.012(g) is “an offense that requires registration as a predatory offender under section 243.166, subdivision 1b, paragraph (a) or (b).” Minn. Stat. § 260.012(g)(5). Registration may be required by section 243.166, subdivision 1b, paragraph (a), in two different ways. First, a person may be required to register as a predatory offender if he was convicted of one of the offenses enumerated in that paragraph. Minn. Stat. § 243.166, subd. 1b(a). Second, a person may be required to register as a predatory offender if he was charged with one of the offenses enumerated in that paragraph and was convicted of “another offense arising out of the same set of circumstances.” Id. The county contends that an offense that triggers either registration requirement is “an offense that requires registration as a predatory offender under section 243.166, subdivision 1b, paragraph (a) or (b).” Minn. Stat. § 260.012(g)(5). We agree with the county that this interpretation of the relevant statutes is a reasonable interpretation.

We next consider whether S.B.G.’s interpretation of the relevant statutes is a reasonable interpretation. Again, he argues that section 260C.301, subdivision 1(b)(9), and the statutes referenced therein authorize the termination of parental rights only of persons who were convicted of an offense that is expressly and specifically enumerated in section 243.166, subdivision 1b(a) or (b). But paragraph (5) of section 260.012(g) requires only “an offense that requires registration as a predatory offender under section 243.166, subdivision 1b, paragraph (a) or (b).” (Emphasis added.) Section 243.166, subdivision 1b(a), may require a person to register as a predatory offender in either of two situations: first, if the person was convicted of an enumerated offense or, second, if the person was charged with an enumerated offense and convicted of “another offense arising out of the same set of circumstances.” Minn. Stat. § 243.166, subd. 1b(a). S.B.G. would like this court to read paragraph (5) of section 260.012(g) to refer only to offenses that are expressly and specifically enumerated in section 243.166, subdivision 1b, paragraph (a) or (b). But the scope of paragraph (5) of section 260.012(g) is not so limited; it also applies if a person is required to register because he or she was charged with an enumerated offense and convicted of “another offense arising out of the same set of circumstances.” Minn. Stat. § 243.166, subd. 1b(a). S.B.G.’s interpretation of the relevant statutes is not a reasonable interpretation.

Accordingly, we are presented with only one reasonable interpretation of the statute, which is the interpretation of the district court and the county. Evidence that a parent is required to register as a predatory offender pursuant to Minnesota Statutes section 243.166, subdivisions 1b(a) or (b), is sufficient to establish the statutory basis for termination of parental rights in Minnesota Statutes section 260C.301, subdivision 1(b)(9). A petitioner need not prove that a parent is required to register as a predatory offender on the ground that the parent was convicted of one of the offenses expressly and specifically enumerated in section 243.166, subdivisions 1b(a) or (b). Because the statute is unambiguous, we need not consider S.B.G.’s alternative argument based on the canon of constitutional avoidance.

C.

S.B.G. was charged with, but not convicted of, an offense that is enumerated in section 243.166, subdivision 1b(a). He was convicted of a different offense that is not an enumerated offense. He does not argue that the unenumerated offense of which he was convicted did not arise out of the same set of circumstances as the enumerated offense with which he was charged but not convicted. Consequently, he is required to register as a predatory offender pursuant to section 243.166, subdivision 1b(a), which means that he has been convicted of a crime listed in section 260.012, paragraph (g), which means that the termination of his parental rights is authorized by section 260C.301, subdivision 1(b)(9).

Thus, the district court did not err by interpreting the relevant statutes to encompass the offense of which S.B.G. was convicted and, thus, did not err by concluding that the county established the alleged statutory basis for termination of his parental rights.

III.

S.B.G. also argues that the district court erred by not considering whether the county made reasonable efforts to reunify H.Q. with him.

In an order determining the merits of a petition to terminate parental rights, a district court ordinarily must “make findings and conclusions as to the provision of reasonable efforts.” Minn. Stat. § 260.012(h) (2020); see also In re Welfare of Children of T.R., 750 N.W.2d 656, 664-66 (Minn. 2008). Alternatively, the district court “may determine ․ that reasonable efforts are not required as provided in paragraph (a).” Minn. Stat. § 260.012(h) (second paragraph).

During CHIPS proceedings in this matter, the district court granted the county's motion to be relieved of its obligation to make reasonable efforts to reunify H.Q. with S.B.G. The district court determined that reasonable efforts were not required on the ground that the petition stated a prima facie case that “the parent has committed an offense that requires registration as a predatory offender under section 243.166, subdivision 1b, paragraph (a) or (b),” as authorized by subsection 260.012(a)(6). Having made that determination, it was unnecessary for the district court to make findings and conclusions pursuant to subsection 260.012(h) as to whether the county had made reasonable efforts to reunify H.Q. with S.B.G. See Children of T.R., 750 N.W.2d at 664; In re Welfare of Children of A.D.B, 970 N.W.2d 725, 732-33 (Minn. App. 2022).

S.B.G. contends that the district court erred by not making a reasonable-efforts determination for only one reason: that section 260C.301, subdivision 1(b)(9), does not apply to him because he was not convicted of an offense that is enumerated in section 243.166, subdivision 1b. In essence, S.B.G.’s argument concerning the absence of a reasonable-efforts determination is based on the same argument he asserted to challenge the statutory basis of the termination of his parental rights. We reject S.B.G.’s argument concerning the absence of a reasonable-efforts determination for the same reasons that we reject his argument concerning the statutory basis of the termination.

Thus, the district court did not err by not making a determination as to whether the county made reasonable efforts to reunify H.Q. with S.B.G.

IV.

S.B.G. last argues that the district court erred by concluding that the termination of his parental rights would be in H.Q.’s best interests.

The paramount consideration in all juvenile-protection proceedings is the best interests of the child. Minn. Stat. § 260C.301, subd. 7 (2020); In re Welfare of Child of B.J.-M., 744 N.W.2d 669, 672 (Minn. 2008). A district court may not order the termination of parental rights without determining that the termination is in the child's best interests. In re Welfare of Children of S.E.P., 744 N.W.2d 381, 385 (Minn. 2008). A best-interests analysis should include consideration and evaluation of “all relevant factors,” Minn. Stat. § 260C.511(a) (2020), including “a review of the relationship between the child and relatives and the child and other important persons with whom the child has resided or had significant contact,” id. § 260C.511(b). This court has identified three factors that must be balanced when considering a child's best interests: “(1) the child's interest in preserving the parent-child relationship; (2) the parent's interest in preserving the parent-child relationship; and (3) any competing interest of the child.” In re Welfare of Children of J.R.B., 805 N.W.2d 895, 905 (Minn. App. 2011), rev. denied (Minn. Jan. 17, 2012) (quotation omitted); see also Minn. R. Juv. Prot. P. 58.04(c)(2)(ii). This court applies an abuse-of-discretion standard of review to a district court's determination that the termination of parental rights is in a child's best interests. In re Welfare of Child of A.M.C., 920 N.W.2d 648, 657 (Minn. App. 2018); Children of J.R.B., 805 N.W.2d at 905.

In this case, the district court made the following findings concerning H.Q.’s best interests:

The child's best interests are best served by terminating Father's parental rights. Any relationship that could potentially exist in the future would have to be limited due to the risk level that Father poses to the child based on his prior conduct and convictions. Additionally, the social stigma of having a father who is a registered predatory offender does not benefit the child. The child's interests are best served in a manner that increases her safety and stability. Father's possible future involvement does not serve those interests.

In its conclusions of law, the district court wrote, “The Agency has proven by clear and convincing evidence that termination of the Father's parental rights would be in the Child's best interests.”

S.B.G. contends that the termination of his parental rights is not in H.Q.’s best interests because, when she is older, she likely will seek him out “to fill the void that she will almost certainly feel because she never knew her biological father.” S.B.G. also contends that he has an interest in a parent-child relationship and, as he testified at trial, plans to develop a relationship with her and to provide for her after he is released from prison.

Evidence in the record supports the district court's analysis of H.Q.’s best interests. In addition to the conviction that requires registration, S.B.G. has been convicted of criminal vehicular operation based on an incident in which he caused substantial bodily harm to a four-year-old child. S.B.G. admitted in his testimony that he has a history of chemical dependency and that his past attempts to achieve sobriety have been unsuccessful. The county's social worker testified that S.B.G. has not attempted to arrange a visit with H.Q. and has not provided her with any financial support. In addition, the social worker testified that, in a telephone conversation with her, S.B.G. expressed concern about his lack of parenting skills. Furthermore, the guardian ad litem stated in a written report, which was introduced as an exhibit, that S.B.G. would be unable to provide H.Q. with consistent and predictable parenting and nurturing and would be unable to ensure a stable, permanent, and safe living environment for the foreseeable future.

Given this evidence and the circumstances of the case, the district court did not abuse its discretion in analyzing H.Q.’s best interests. To date, S.B.G. has not met H.Q. The district court appropriately recognized that, in light of S.B.G.’s prior convictions, including a crime of a sexual nature involving a 15-year-old girl, H.Q.’s safety and security would be at risk and that her contact with S.B.G. would need to be limited in some way.

Thus, the district court did not err by concluding that the termination of S.B.G.’s parental rights would be in H.Q.’s best interests.

DECISION

The district court had subject-matter jurisdiction over this termination-of-parental-rights case. The district court properly interpreted the applicable statutes and properly concluded that the county established the alleged statutory basis for termination. The district court did not err by not making a determination concerning whether the county made reasonable efforts to reunify H.Q. with S.B.G. And the district court did not err by concluding that the termination of S.B.G.’s parental rights would be in H.Q.’s best interests.

Affirmed.

JOHNSON, Judge

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