K.F., In Interest of

Decision Date22 March 1989
Docket NumberNo. 88-628,88-628
PartiesIn the Interest of K.F., A Child. Appeal of K.F., Mother.
CourtIowa Supreme Court

Bobbi M. Alpers, Davenport, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Atty. Gen., Gordon E. Allen, Deputy Atty. Gen., and Charles K. Phillips, Asst. Atty. Gen., for appellee State of Iowa.

Gary D. McKenrick of Gomez, May, McKenrick & Kelly, Davenport, guardian ad litem for the child.


NEUMAN, Justice.

This is an appeal from a juvenile court judgment severing a mother-child relationship. 1 The controversy brings into sharp focus the painful choices thrust upon the State as parens patriae when a natural parent suffers from a chronic mental illness. We transferred the case to the court of appeals which, on a five to one vote, reversed the juvenile court. Having granted applications by the State and the child's guardian ad litem for further review, we now vacate the court of appeals decision and affirm the judgment of the juvenile court.

I. Familiar principles guide our consideration of this appeal. Our review, of course, is de novo. In re Dameron, 306 N.W.2d 743, 745 (Iowa 1981). Thus we examine the facts as well as the law and adjudicate rights anew on the record before us, mindful of our obligation to accord weight to the juvenile judge's factual findings, especially when considering the credibility of witnesses. Id.

As we recently explained in In re A.C., 415 N.W.2d 609 (Iowa 1987),

[c]entral to a determination of this nature are the best interests of the child. In this connection we look to the child's long range as well as immediate interest. Hence, we necessarily consider what the future likely holds for the child if returned to his or her parents. Insight for this determination can be gained from evidence of the parent's past performance, for that performance may be indicative of the quality of the future care that parent is capable of providing.

Id. at 613 (quoting In re T.D.C., 336 N.W.2d 738, 740-41 (Iowa 1983)).

The grounds for termination of parental rights must be shown by clear and convincing proof. Iowa Code § 232.116(5)(c); In re O'Neal, 303 N.W.2d 414, 422 (Iowa 1981). Of particular significance here is the rule that mental disability, standing alone, is not a sufficient reason for the termination of the parent-child relationship. O'Neal, 303 N.W.2d at 422. Nevertheless, we have said that it is a proper factor to consider and, when it contributes to a person's inability to parent, may be determinative on the issue of whether termination is required in the child's best interest. See id.

With these principles in mind, we turn to the record before us and the arguments presented on appeal.

II. The minor child, Kristi, was nine years old when the termination hearing was held. Her mother, appellant K.F. (Karen), suffers from schizophrenia, paranoid subtype. Since 1981, Karen has been subject to eleven involuntary commitments due to her mental illness. Thus Kristi has spent four and one-half years of her young life in out-of-home placements. The commitment which ultimately precipitated these proceedings occurred in December 1985. Kristi was placed in emergency foster care, followed by an adjudication that she was a child in need of assistance (CINA). See Iowa Code § 232.96. Pursuant to this adjudication, she has remained in foster care ever since. 2

As revealed by the testimony of Karen's psychiatrist, her illness is characterized by bizarre behavior brought on by delusions of persecution and paranoia. In general, the illness manifests itself through abnormalities in the thinking process (associational disturbances), inappropriate affect (disassociation in physical manifestation of emotion), autism (total self-absorption), and habit deterioration (for example, neglect of personal hygiene). Characteristically, the illness follows a predictable pattern: the patient denies the illness, loses touch with reality ("decompensates"), becomes delusional, and then exhibits bizarre behavior resulting in an involuntary commitment. After a period of hospitalization and drug therapy, the patient regains a hold on reality, is eventually discharged from commitment and then, because of denial of the illness, discontinues necessary medication and begins the cycle anew.

Karen's illness has followed this pattern for fifteen years, with the additional feature that she falls within the subgroup of schizophrenics who become acutely ill (psychotic) within one to two weeks of stopping medication. In the acute phase, Karen's delusions center on her belief that she is being persecuted by Mafia figures; a preoccupation with injustices she has suffered; and a belief that she has ties to the White House and famous persons who direct her activities. Her manner becomes irrational and aggressive, punctuated by excessive profanity and anger. She has in recent years caused numerous disturbances in shopping malls and in the offices of prospective employers, threatening neighbors with arson, voicing intentions to shoot the President, and threatening to kill a minister.

When in remission, Karen presents herself as polite and congenial, a doting and affectionate parent, and a tidy homemaker. She maintains her own apartment and satisfactorily manages her social security disability income. She has rarely missed a scheduled visit with Kristi and she has cooperated with case workers in planning suitable activities for them.

In spite of this outward ability to carry on a normal life, Karen's psychiatrist concedes that even with the help of medication, Karen's delusional system "never goes away 100 percent." The truth of his observation is exemplified by Karen's response to a question posed by the court in a CINA review hearing held in August 1987, approximately six months prior to the termination hearing:

Q: Have you tried--since last February or so, have you tried to maintain regular contact with Kristi through letters, if you weren't available for visits in the community? A: Yes. And I'd like to explain, I was brainwashed down at Mt. Pleasant by pills that were brought in from Turkey, which you can communicate with each other in your mind, and this is already known fact in Japan and China. It's just that this--this country is not aware of it.

Six months later, discharged from any involuntary commitment status and defending her parental rights in these termination proceedings, Karen responded to a nearly identical inquiry as follows:

A: I once made a statement ... in one of my hearings that I was given drugs to more or less mind read, read my mind, and thoughts were being put in my head at that time, that the Mafia was after me. Since I've been out of the hospital in June, I no longer have the drugs and no longer have the mind reading or mind interpretation, and I have no belief now that the Mafia is after me.

Q: Okay. You believe that was a result of the drugs that the doctors were giving you? A: Not necessarily. I was receptive to this mind reading thing because I was on drugs. Whoever wanted to read my mind had to take the drug, which I was told is from Turkey.

Q: Okay. And since you're no longer taking that drug, you can't read those minds now; is that--A: No, I couldn't mind read. They could mind read me.

Q: Okay. A: And put thoughts in my mind, so that I would appear crazy if I said anything. Now, that may sound delusional to you now, but it's real. I have no--I've had no problems with that since June, though.

It is against this backdrop that we consider the State's petition to terminate Karen's parental rights, filed December 9, 1987. Brought in accordance with Iowa Code section 232.116(5), 3 the burden rests upon the State to furnish clear and convincing proof that all of the following have occurred:

(1) The child has been adjudicated a child in need of assistance pursuant to section 232.96.

(2) The custody of the child has been transferred from the child's parents for placement pursuant to section 232.102 for at least twelve of the last eighteen months.

(3) There is clear and convincing evidence that the child cannot be returned to the custody of the child's parents as provided in section 232.102.

Iowa Code § 232.116(1)(e) (1987 Cum.Supp.).

Section 232.102 refers to potential harm to a child resulting from a variety of circumstances listed in section 232.2(6). In this case, the State's underlying CINA petition alleged that due to Karen's involuntary hospitalization, Kristi was without anyone to care for her. See Iowa Code § 232.2(6)(j) ("child in need of assistance" means an unmarried child who is without a parent, guardian, or other custodian).

Karen concedes that conditions (1) and (2) of section 232.116(1)(e) have been met. Kristi has been adjudicated in need of assistance and custody has been transferred for more than twelve months. We therefore address solely the sufficiency of the proof offered in support of the third necessary element. In that connection, Karen challenges the termination on three grounds: (1) that the court erred in admitting hearsay evidence over her timely objection; (2) that the court's determination that Kristi cannot be returned to her mother pursuant to Iowa Code section 232.102 is not supported by clear and convincing evidence; and (3) in view of the bond between this mother and daughter, the trial court should not have terminated the parent-child relationship.

A. Hearsay testimony. Appellant's first contention merits only our brief attention. During the State's examination of Sharon Love, a social worker who had worked closely with Karen and Kristi, the State offered into evidence a quarterly report authored by Sharon's predecessor, Tammie Bayless. Sharon testified that she had relied on this report to familiarize herself with Kristi's case when she took it over in August 1987.

Counsel for Karen objected to the admissibility of the document on hearsay grounds,...

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