The circuit court terminated S.T.’s parental rights to three of her children after she brought one of them (a 5-month old twin) to the hospital with severe burns on his body. S.T. appealed arguing that during the grounds phase of the TPR trial the circuit court erroneously relied on irrelevant evidence–testimony regarding past CHIPS and TPR proceedings that predated the births of these three children.
In 2008, a court terminated S.T.’s parental rights to two children after one of them suffered first and second degree burns for which she did not seek medical care. She also lost two babies due to suffocation from co-sleeping. One of those deaths was considered “suspicious.” In addition, she gave birth to a stillborn baby. Opinion, ¶6.
By 2018, S.T. had another child plus baby twins all of whom had health issues that required regular clinical appointments. S.T. missed two appointments and struggled to feed her twins properly. When she brought one 5 month old twin in for burns, she had trouble explaining what happened. She told the nurse she had left him in the tub with the water running and didn’t realize how hot it was until she returned.
At trial, S.T.’s case manager testified about S.T.’s problems with the children she lost before she gave birth to the three involved in this case. The manager explained that S.T. was cognitively delayed and had trouble learning from past experiences so as to modify her behavior and avoid similar problems in the future. Opinion, ¶11.
The court of appeals found the evidence relevant and admissible under §§904.01, 904.02, and 904.03. The evidence of past TPRs showed that S.T.’s cognitive disabilities prevented her from learning from prior experiences that harmed her children. And there was little risk of confusion or unfair prejudice because this case was tried to a court (not a jury), which had a clear understanding of the applicable standard. Opinion, ¶¶17-18.
The court of appeals also held that even if the circuit court admitted the evidence erroneously the error was harmless. The record contained ample evidence of S.T.’s cognitive disabilities, limited parenting skills, need for constant parenting assistance, and the burns that her baby suffered. Opinion, ¶20.