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In Re Ritchie





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Carroll County; the Hon. JOHN W. RAPP, JR., Judge, presiding.


Micky Joe Morfey, the putative *fn1 father of male child Ritchie filed a petition under the Juvenile Court Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1973, ch. 37, pars. 702-1, 702-4). He alleged that he fathered the child, that the child was neglected, dependent and otherwise in need of supervision. He alleged that the child had been abandoned by his natural mother, Nancy Ritchie, the respondent. He sought the appointment of a guardian with power to consent to the adoption of the child by the petitioner and asked that he be granted custody. Following a hearing the court entered an adjudicatory order which found that the child was "neglected as to other care necessary for his well-being" and set a date for a dispositional hearing. Following the dispositional hearing the trial court entered judgment awarding the custody of the child to respondent Nancy Ritchie, granting visitation rights to the father, ordering the father to pay certain medical and hospital expenses and to pay weekly child support. The mother appeals. The father cross-appeals from the portion of the order which granted custody of the child to the mother. *fn2

The petitioner and the respondent were both long-standing residents of Savanna, Illinois, who dated from early 1973 until January of 1976. There had been serious discussions with respect to marriage but in January of 1976 the respondent determined that she did not wish to marry petitioner and broke off the relationship. In March she discovered that she was pregnant. There were apparently later discussions between the parties which did not end in common agreement. In May 1976 respondent left Savanna for Winona, Minnesota, for the purpose of having her child. She chose Winona because she had an aunt and uncle there and because of the location there of Catholic Charities, a social service organization, which assists unmarried mothers. She intended to return to Illinois after the child was born.

The father wrote to her stating that if she sought to have the baby adopted he wanted to be recognized as the father "or I will go for full custody of the baby with or without you." In later letters petitioner urged that the child not remain in foster care status and said he wanted the child to live with one or the two of them. He indicated that he was still in love with respondent and desired to marry her. However, respondent advised the Catholic Charities that there was no possibility of marriage and that she believed the child would have a better opportunity if reared by two parents with an established home. She did not feel that financially or psychologically she was prepared to be a single parent. She felt that the father wanted the baby to remain with one of them so that their relationship with each other could be resumed.

The child was born on October 11, 1976, and respondent immediately returned to Savanna leaving the child in Winona with the Catholic Charities in foster care status.

Some time in October petitioner began living with Ruth Commisio, whom he later married, and her three-year-old daughter. Yet there is also some evidence that the petitioner still hoped that respondent would marry him as late as November 1976. Also in November, petitioner sent Catholic Charities a check which was returned with a letter advising petitioner that if he wished to pay any of the baby's bills he should contact respondent or her attorney. The record shows that all payments for the baby's maintenance and for maternity bills were paid by respondent.

Commencing in December of 1976, or possibly some time earlier, petitioner began to visit the child at the Catholic Charities in Winona and brought toys and clothes.

He filed his petition in March of 1977 and personal service of summons was made on the respondent in Savanna. Thereafter her attorney filed a motion to dismiss the petition for failure of jurisdiction alleging that the child had never been in the State of Illinois. The motion was denied and an evidentiary hearing set on the petition for April 27, 1977.

At the evidentiary hearing respondent stated "at this time" she did not have any intention of ever raising the child but wished to place the child for adoption if the petitioner consented. She said, however, "I will keep him if I have to * * * instead of letting the father have him." She stated that the child was six months old and that she had never had him in her custody nor had she named the child. She said that Catholic Charities would release the child into her custody at any time but that she had no plans to have the child returned. Also, it appeared from her testimony that she was living at home with her parents, working 40 hours a week and making $2.40 an hour. She agreed that it would be possible for her to keep the child with her if she also received support payments.

Petitioner testified that he desired custody because the child "should be with one of its natural parents." At this time petitioner was living with and supporting Ruth Commisio and her little girl. He stated that he and Ruth had plans to be married; that he was a full-time employee of a railroad and had earned $11,300 the previous year.

Petitioner's mother and sister-in-law were called as witnesses and both testified that they were available to assist in caring for the child should petitioner be granted custody.

The court took the case under advisement. Thereafter, on May 14, 1977, respondent brought the child to Savanna. Respondent's caseworker with Catholic Charities stated in her report that she was not sure what motivated the abrupt decision. Also, about this time the trial court received a request from petitioner's counsel that petitioner be given temporary visitation which the court referred to the probation officer.

The trial court announced its decision on May 24, 1977, finding that the child was "neglected" as "to other care necessary for his well-being." The court stated that it based its finding on the fact that the child's life was in a state of "limbo" and expressed the concern that the longer the child remained in this status the more difficult it would be for him to establish a permanent family environment. At the dispositional hearing it appeared that the parties' circumstances had changed substantially since the earlier hearing. Respondent now had the child with her and had named him Jason Wayne Ritchie. She now indicated that "under no circumstances would she give the child up for adoption." She was engaged to be married and her fiance testified that he had grown to love the child and wished to join in his adoption after they were married. There was further testimony that respondent had been tending to all motherly duties and was very good with the baby, who knew respondent was his mother. Petitioner's status had also changed. He was now married, he had improved earnings and improved living facilities for another child. His wife also testified to her attachment for the child. The adjudicatory order from which the appeal was taken followed.

In respondent's appeal she first questions the right of the Circuit Court of Carroll County to hear and decide the case and, alternatively, its procedures. However, we conclude ...

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