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Courtroom outbursts justified exclusion of mother from parental rights trial

By: Laura Brown//November 30, 2023//

Courtroom outbursts justified exclusion of mother from parental rights trial

By: Laura Brown//November 30, 2023//

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A mother contested a district court’s order terminating her parental rights, arguing that her due process rights were violated when the termination trial was held without her. The Minnesota Court of Appeals, in In the Matter of the Welfare of the Child of F.F N.M., Parent, held that the court had authority to exclude mother from the trial due to her disruptive behavior.

In November 2021, a woman was evaluated in an emergency department for threatening suicide and having a gun in her possession. The woman was not cooperative with hospital staff, requiring restraints and sedation. She was ultimately diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.

The mother had a child who was born in 2016. Due to concern with the child’s welfare, the child was placed in protective custody in Blue Earth County. The Blue Earth County District Court determined that the child needed protection or services, which the mother admitted, due to the mother’s severe mental health issues and the mother’s history as a domestic violence victim when the child was present.

Later, the mother was the subject of a separate civil commitment proceeding. Although the court concluded that the mother met the criteria for civil commitment, it stayed the civil commitment order on the condition that mother comply with various criteria.

Six months after the child was in an out-of-home placement, there was a permanency review. The court found that mother did not substantially comply with her case plan requirements, and the department filed a petition to terminate the mother’s parental rights.

The mother decided to fire her attorney and represent herself at the admit/deny hearing on the termination petition. During this hearing, she yelled at the judge and interrupted questioning. Ultimately, the mother needed to be removed from the courtroom.

Mother’s disruptive behavior continued at the termination of parental rights trial. She refused to go through security screening, so loudly that she could be heard on the second floor of the courthouse. Because of her noncompliance, the mother was removed from the courthouse.

Somehow, mother was able to bypass security and enter the courthouse at another point of entrance. Even though the mother did not follow the security mandates, she was still offered an opportunity to participate in the trial. Mother engaged in screaming and other disruptive behavior, telling the court deputies that they would need to put her in handcuffs. Subsequently, the court made the decision to remove her from the courtroom.

The mother’s rights were ultimately terminated. She argued that her due process rights were violated when she was excluded from the trial.

However, the court disagreed. “Mother does not dispute that her conduct disrupted the court and warranted her removal from the trial,” the court wrote.

“[T]he district court was willing to allow mother to exercise those rights, but mother refused to behave in a manner that would have allowed her to do so,” the court noted. “The record also shows that the district court had no reasonable option other than exclusion.”

The mother also argued that there should have been a continuance for her behavior. “[C]ontinuing a termination trial to a new date in response to a parent’s disruptive conduct would enable the parent to avoid termination and to inappropriately delay a permanent-placement determination,” the court argued. “[A] continuance is not the solution to behavior that disrupts a termination trial.”

Additionally, the mother also argued that because she was acting as her own counsel, the court was prohibited from removing her from the courtroom. Rule 38.04 prohibits removal of “counsel for any party.” The court disagreed yet again, concluding that the mother’s status as a pro se party did not make her counsel for any party. “Treating a pro se party as ‘counsel’ under rule 38.04 would make any pro se litigant in a termination proceeding immune from removal, even if that party engages in conduct that disrupts the court,” the court reasoned. “If a person acting as her own attorney without being licensed as an attorney cannot be removed from the courtroom for disruptive conduct, a parent could inappropriately delay proceedings intended to determine a child’s best interests by forgoing counsel and engaging in disruptive conduct.”

The court affirmed the district court’s termination of her parental rights.

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