Rusk County DHHS v. R.S., 2022AP1530, District 3, 1/20/23 (one-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity

R.S. (“Ruth”) argues that at the trial on the County’s petition to terminate her parental rights, the County Department of Health and Human Services didn’t prove it made reasonable efforts to provide the services ordered in the original CHIPS dispositional order. The court of appeals rejects the claim.

The TPR petition against Ruth alleged continuing CHIPS as a ground for termination. (¶5). Under § 48.415(2)(a)2.b., to establish a continuing CHIPS ground the Department must prove it made a “reasonable effort” to provide the parent with the services required under the CHIPS order. Section 48.415(2)(a)2.a. defines “reasonable effort” as “an earnest and conscientious effort to take good faith steps to provide the services ordered by the court which takes into consideration the characteristics of the parent .., the level of cooperation of the parent … and other relevant circumstances of the case.”

Among the various conditions the CHIPS order established in order for Ruth’s child to be returned to her home, Ruth was required to “attend counseling to address any past or current issues.” (¶4). The CHIPS dispositional order also required the Department to provide both “case management” and “[i]ndividual [c]ounseling” services to Ruth. (¶23).

Ruth did engage in mental health services throughout the period following the dispositional order and during the TPR proceedings, including AODA counseling with Abby Dieckman. But after Ruth discontinued AODA care without completing it, Dieckman recommended to the Department social worker that Ruth get inpatient treatment. (¶9). Ruth never got inpatient treatment (¶11), and Ruth now argues that, because she didn’t get that recommended level of treatment, the evidence was not sufficient to prove the Department made a “reasonable effort” to assist Ruth in obtaining mental health counseling. (¶22). The court of appeals isn’t persuaded, for two reasons.

First, the CHIPS order didn’t explicitly require that Ruth receive inpatient mental health care, so Ruth argues the Department was implicitly required to assist her in getting inpatient care. She points to explicit conditions in the CHIPS order—namely, that the Department provide both “case management” and “[i]ndividual [c]ounseling”—and Dieckman’s recommendation for inpatient care and argues that, taken together, these conditions and circumstances obligated the Department to assist her with obtaining inpatient mental health care. (¶23). The court of appeals says the explicit conditions and Dieckman’s recommendation don’t add up to an explicit requirement to provide inpatient care; therefore the CHIPS order required only that the Department make reasonable efforts in providing case management services and assisting Ruth in receiving individual counseling. (¶24).

Second, even if the CHIPS order did require inpatient mental health care, there was sufficient evidence to find that the Department made reasonable efforts to provide that service. Ruth’s social worker asked another, more specialized county agency about available inpatient care and, because Ruth was on probation, communicated with the Department of Corrections about an inpatient referral. Further, the Department faced obstacles in providing services and assistance to Ruth, which is relevant in determining whether an agency made a reasonable effort. Ruth was frequently incarcerated, and the jury could reasonably infer that hindered efforts to provide Ruth with services including inpatient treatment. And, though Ruth availed herself of services, she repeatedly failed to complete various programs (e.g., she went to one out of eight scheduled individual mental health counseling and didn’t follow through with options offered to her to get mental health medication coverage). (¶¶6-11, 25-27). Thus, “[w]hile the Department was required to put forth reasonable efforts to assist Ruth, the Department’s ability to provide services to Ruth was limited by her engagement in those services and her completion of the programs.” (¶27).