The case of the ‘good parents’ who almost starved their child to death

If you’ve almost starved one child to death, are you fit enough as a parent to retain three others in your care if they aren’t starving or, apparently, abused? Today, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled you are.

The case involves two parents, Mona and Russell Hauer , who were licensed foster care providers when they took in and then adopted three siblings — now 9, 8, and 6 — one of whom had been beaten by their biological father.

Some months after the couple took custody, two of the children were diagnosed with post traumatic stress and other disorders. A child psychologist provided parenting recommendations to the adoptive couple, including a suggestion the children not be home schooled because they needed to socialize with other children. But the parents didn’t follow through.

All of the quotes below are from descriptions in today’s ruling.

They did not seek psychiatric care or professional counseling for any of the children. They used spanking as a punishment, at least for a period of time, sometimes spanking the children with objects. They denied withholding food as punishment, but as discussed below, P.P.H.’s eating schedule and diet became problematic. R.J.H. also told medical personnel that they sometimes withheld food from a child until chores were finished, and that this delay was as much as a half a day. And although they did not isolate the children, they did homeschool them.

The primary health care provider for the family was a chiropractor.

One child ate constantly and didn’t stop. He’d take food from a compost bin, and eat out of a bird feeder.

The child also had a problem with bed-wetting. The chiropractor treated it with an “adjustment” and a recommendation for some nutrients.

In August or September 2012, they purchased a plastic sled and had P.P.H. sleep in the sled so that he would not get urine on the bed or floor. P.P.H.’s siblings testified that P.P.H. was sometimes hosed off in the morning after he wet the bed, with T.S.H. having the task of handling the hose.

For five years, the kids received no professional health care. Last year, at 8 years old, “P.P.H.” weighed only 34 pounds. He had a protruding belly, common for people suffering from starvation.

P.P.H. was transferred to the pediatric-critical-care unit at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Testing at Rochester revealed brain volume loss as well as a lack of fat in the subcutaneous and marrow areas of the brain. A bone-age test revealed his bone age to be 6 years and 6 months, three standard deviations below the mean. He was moved to the general-pediatric unit after one night in the critical-care unit. A physician with the child and adolescent psychiatry unit described him as “strikingly thin and emaciated.”

The adoptive mother told the doctors at Mayo that the child’s disorders stemmed from a need “to control situations and to gain attention.”

At a hearing to terminate parental rights for the child, a Mayo doctor said it was unlikely any medical condition caused his starvation. Three of the adopted children, and a biological child were placed in foster care.

The father, who the court said makes more than $100,000 a year as an accountant, said the family could no longer “keep up with the boy’s games.”

…and complained that Mayo Clinic physicians were feeding P.P.H. dairy products against M.A.H. and R.J.H.’s instructions. He reported that the travel to and from Rochester was hard on the family and that these were all P.P.H.’s issues. He stated that he felt P.P.H. had “won,” and that it would be hard to have him back home because the hospital staff gave him what he wanted.

The Nicollet County sheriff began a criminal investigation…

Following the execution of the search warrant, the investigators interviewed P.P.H.’s siblings. During the trip to the foster home, the three children were very upset, and made a number of angry statements blaming P.P.H. for their situation, calling him a liar and a thief, and saying that he was bad. During a later trip to the doctor for physicals, they made similar comments. The physicals indicated no medical issues or nutritional deficiencies, and no physical evidence of abuse or neglect.

Nicollet County moved to strip the parents of their parental rights to all four children.

The social worker testified that the children need long-term therapy but that this work was unlikely to occur if they remained with M.A.H. and R.J.H. because they would not have emotional safety. She testified that the relationship between P.P.H. and his parents should be viewed as that of “victim and perpetrator.” She expressed the opinion that M.A.H. and R.J.H.’s parental rights should be terminated as to all four children.

The District Court, however, sent all but “P.P.H” back home. A judge ruled the county failed to meet its burden to show that the adoptive parents refused or neglected to comply with their parental duties.

The county appealed the decision not to remove the other three children. The parents appealed the order that took the one.

In his decision today upholding the removal of “P.P.H.”, Court of Appeals Judge David Minge observed legal protocol in giving the parents a piece of his mind.

While a reasonable person’s opinions on parenting might vary, a child’s physical condition should not be allowed to deteriorate to near-fatal malnutrition before his caregivers conclude that their parenting strategy for the child’s nutritional problems are inadequate. In this case, P.P.H. only received medical care because M.A.H. believed, apparently erroneously, that he had thrown up blood. Although she testified that she had intended to seek additional medical care, as of the date P.P.H. was hospitalized, there is no evidence that she had made an appointment or other preparation to seek professional help.

It is disturbing that these siblings were required to endure a second termination proceeding, and that P.P.H. has once more been separated from his parents. But it is even more disturbing that P.P.H.’s condition was allowed to progress to an extreme, near-fatal state, especially given the county’s involvement with the family through the adoption as well as M.A.H. and R.J.H.’s role as foster parents. As in all termination proceedings, the paramount consideration must be the best interests of the child, and this record clearly and convincingly supports the district court’s conclusion that termination is in P.P.H.’s best interests.

Under Minnesota law, Minge said, it is presumed that if parents are judged unfit to be the parents of one child, it is presumed they are unfit to be the parents of any others.

But Minge said the district court judge was right to leave three other children in the home, citing testimony from the parents’ church members that they were good parents.

M.A.H. and R.J.H. presented evidence that their relationship with A.J.H., T.S.H., and N.M.H. does not involve the sort of inappropriate “power struggle” they engaged in with P.P.H. Although there is evidence that the other children have suffered some emotional and psychological harm, they exhibit none of the severe symptoms shown by P.P.H. Although there was testimony that they lacked empathy for P.P.H.’s condition, there was evidence that M.A.H. and R.J.H. empathized with the other three children. Perhaps most compellingly, unlike P.P.H., there was no evidence of an urgent and ongoing need for A.J.H., T.S.H., and N.M.H. to receive psychological or medical attention.

“Although A.J.H., T.S.H., and N.M.H. were made to witness and participate in the mistreatment of P.P.H.,” Minge wrote. “The record supports the district court’s determination that these actions do not constitute ‘grave and weighty reasons’ necessary to terminate M.A.H. and R.J.H.’s parental rights to these three children.”

Here is the full ruling.