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Judge: Couple guilty of chaining child to retain parental rights

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In this Post-Bulletin photo from June 16, Brian and Charity Miller wait to get into a vehicle after the second day of testimony in their parental rights termination trial in Mower County District Court in Austin. On Friday, a judge ruled that the couple may retain their parental rights, but sentenced them to a year in jail.

Brian and Charity Miller, the rural Dexter couple convicted of chaining at least one of their children to a bed and withholding food from the other, will retain their parental rights.

Mower County District Court Judge Fred Wellmann issued the ruling Thursday, about a month after arguments wrapped up in the county's case against the couple.

The children have been in a foster home since authorities arrested the Millers in April. Now, a a parenting plan will be written, and the county will then have 180 days to attempt reunification, according to M. Thomas Lenway, Brian Miller's attorney.

It's the social worker's responsibility, Lenway said, "to put the parenting plan together, to get the services provided that are needed to get the parents on the right track, so things like this don't happen again in the future."

Wellman says in his ruling that the Millers have "substantially, continuously and repeatedly refused or neglected to comply with the duties imposed upon (them) by the parent-child relationship" and calls them unfit parents. He also says that the boys have experienced "egregious harm" and that returning them to their parents would result in further physical or emotional harm.

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But because the children are registered with the Cherokee Nation, the Federal Indian Welfare Act comes into play in the case. Under Indian Welfare Act rules, the petitioner, Mower County Human Services, had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it tried to reunify the Miller family.

"They have failed to meet this burden of proof," Wellman's ruling says. "Thus, the Millers’ parental rights cannot be terminated, although this Court has found that they failed to meet their parental duties to (their sons), are palpably unfit to parent the children, and have caused the children egregious emotional harm."

Charity and Brian Miller have each pleaded guilty to false imprisonment for chaining their 5-year-old son to his crib and to malicious punishment of a child for withholding food from their 8-year-old son.

District Court Judge Donald Rysavy was scheduled to sentence the Millers this morning, but Lenway said their criminal attorney will request a continuance "because he hasn't gotten a copy of the (parental rights) ruling yet. If there was a termination, it would be a different situation for the criminal court to deal with than it is now with the reunification."

At the time of the Millers' arrest in April, authorities said the older boy said he was no longer chained to his bed because he stopped getting up for food during the night. The older boy reportedly told authorities that the 5-year-old was chained to his bed every day after school and remained chained until dinner, if they were allowed to eat. After dinner, the younger boy was chained to his bed again, his brother said, until leaving for school the next day.

The Millers testified that they used the chain because the youngest boy got out of bed at night and had "gotten into things," including a knife. The chain was for his own safety, they said.

Attorneys' reactions

Wellmann's ruling was "exactly what we expected the result would be," Lenway said. "Our position all along has been that the county has made no efforts to rehabilitate or reunify the family as required under (the Indian Welfare Act), and that's exactly what Judge Wellmann has found, as well."

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Lenway said Brian Miller is "pretty excited" about the ruling.

Dan Donnelly, Charity Miller's attorney, was unavailable for comment.

In a news release, the Mower County Attorney's office says: "Although we vigorously argued to terminate the parental rights of the Millers, we understand the Court's ruling in light of the Court's interpretation of the mandates imposed by the Federal Indian Child Welfare Act.

"This office would like to make it clear that the denial of our motion to terminate the parental rights does not mean that the children will be returned to the custody of the Millers at this time.

"The Mower County Attorney's Office and Mower County Human Services will continue to act in the best interests of these children, and will strive to ensure their safety and well-being."

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