Appeal from the Circuit Court of Saline County; the Hon. Terry
Foster, Judge, presiding.
JUSTICE JONES DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
This is an appeal from two contemporaneous orders of the circuit court of Saline County finding respondent, Barbara Wright, to be an unfit parent to her minor children, Dorothy and Joseph Wright, terminating all of her parental rights over those children, and granting to the guardianship administrator of the Department of Children and Family Services the power to consent to their adoption. The first of these two challenged orders pertains exclusively to Mrs. Wright's daughter, Dorothy; the second, identical in language, applies solely to her son, Joseph. In each case the trial court's determination that respondent was not a fit parent was predicated upon a finding that she failed to maintain "a reasonable degree of interest, concern or responsibility" toward the welfare of her respective children. Respondent contends that that finding was not supported by clear and convincing evidence. Respondent further argues that any failure on her part to maintain a "reasonable degree of interest, concern or responsibility" toward her children was caused by official acts of the Department of Children and Family Services itself and cannot therefore serve as the basis for termination of her parental rights on grounds of lack of fitness.
The record reveals that Dorothy Wright was born on August 20, 1978, and that Joseph Wright was born on February 22, 1980. Respondent, Barbara Wright, is the natural mother of both children. Clarence Wright, respondent's husband, is their natural father.
On March 18, 1983, the Department of Children and Family Services (hereinafter referred to as DCFS) filed a petition for adjudication of wardship, alleging that Dorothy and Joseph were being neglected by their parents in violation of section 2-4(1) of the Juvenile Court Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 37, par. 702-4(1) and requesting that the children be made wards of the court. DCFS decided to file this petition after conducting an investigation, based on a tip from an anonymous source, which showed that the house trailer where the Wrights lived in Eldorado, Illinois, was dirty and contained inadequate food, that there was lack of adequate supervision of the children, that the children and their clothing were filthy, and that the children were sleeping on a bare mattress on the floor.
Ten days later on March 28, 1983, a brief hearing was held before the circuit court of Saline County, at which the State's Attorney and Barbara and Clarence Wright agreed to continue the adjudication hearing for nine months, during which period DCFS was to maintain supervision of the household including "periodical visits, counseling, and generally whatever help might be necessary for this family." In addition, the court appointed Ms. Krystal Tison as guardian ad litem for Dorothy and Joseph Wright. The agreement for continuance was entered into pursuant to section 4-7(4) of the Juvenile Court Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 37, par. 704-7(4)), which empowers a court to leave minors in their own home during the period of a continuance.
The court's formal order for continuance under supervision was dated March 28, 1983, and filed on March 30, 1983. The court advised the parents that if they cooperated with DCFS and made the necessary corrections to DCFS' satisfaction by the end of the nine-month period, the petition for adjudication would presumably be dismissed. Dorothy and Joseph were permitted to remain in their parents' home. No conditions, other than DCFS supervision of the household, were imposed by the court.
On May 31, 1983, DCFS filed a petition to terminate the order for continuance under supervision. This petition alleged that respondent had left the children with their father "and left for parts unknown," that the father had been hospitalized for an extended period in Jefferson Barracks Veterans Hospital in Missouri, and that no other family members were able or willing to care for the children. A hearing on this petition was convened the following day, June 1, 1983.
Neither parent was present at the hearing, apparently having received no prior notice of it. The sole testimony was given by Vivian Robinson, a DCFS child-welfare worker assigned to the case, who stated that respondent had left town "a couple of months ago" without leaving an address or indicating when she would return. Ms. Robinson stated that respondent had left a note with her husband telling him that she was leaving and that she was giving the children to him.
When respondent departed, the children went to stay with an aunt, their father's sister, Lena. Unfortunately, the aunt found that she could not properly care for the children and was unwilling to continue to do so. Approximately one or two weeks prior to the hearing, and apparently unknown to respondent, respondent's husband found it necessary to admit himself to a veterans administration hospital in St. Louis, Missouri. The only other relative in the vicinity known to DCFS was the children's grandmother, who advised DCFS on the morning of May 31, 1983, that she could not care for the children either. Accordingly, DCFS proceeded to place the children in a foster home. This was done without consultation with the father and without investigation by DCFS as to the length of time he was expected to be hospitalized.
Based upon this testimony, and without objection by the guardian ad litem, the circuit court ordered that supervision be terminated and that Dorothy and Joseph be placed in the temporary custody of the guardianship administrator of DCFS. The court further instructed DCFS to contact the father to ascertain "what his attitude is." Ms. Robinson, on behalf of DCFS, stated that she would write him a letter explaining the situation and advising that "we understand that he is sick and needs to be in the hospital, that we can take care of them [the children] until such time as he can get well and provide a good, safe, secure home and income and this type of thing for the children."
Nearly four months later, on September 27, 1983, a hearing was held on whether Dorothy and Joseph should be adjudged wards of the court. Present were Clarence Wright, pro se; respondent, Barbara Wright, and a public defender who had been appointed to represent her; the State's Attorney on behalf of DCFS, and Ms. Tison, the guardian ad litem. At this hearing the parties advised the court that they had reached an agreement on disposition of the action. The agreement provided that Clarence and Barbara Wright would admit that their children were neglected as alleged in the original petition for adjudication of wardship and that all parties would request an adjudication of wardship. The parties further agreed to a disposition of the children consisting of placement of their custody and guardianship with the guardianship administrator of DCFS. The court adopted this agreement, and on September 30, 1983, it signed and filed orders of adjudication making Dorothy and Joseph wards of the court. The parents, Clarence and Barbara Wright, understood the agreement reached on September 27, 1983, to mean that Barbara retained the right to petition the court to terminate the wardship and have the children returned to her if her home and living conditions were made satisfactory to the court, and this understanding was expressly conveyed to the court.
Subsequently, on March 27, 1984, DCFS filed supplemental petitions pursuant to section 4-1 of the Juvenile Court Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 37, par. 704-1), requesting that respondent be declared an unfit parent as described in section 1D of the Adoption Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 40, par. 1501D), and pursuant to section 5-9 of the Juvenile Court Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 37, par. 705-9), praying that the guardianship administrator of DCFS be appointed guardian of Dorothy and Joseph with the power to consent to their adoption. These supplemental petitions followed a decision by the children's father in January 1984 to surrender voluntarily all parental rights over them to DCFS and to grant DCFS the power and authority to consent to their legal adoption. In its supplemental petitions, DCFS alleged respondent was "unfit" within the meaning of section 1D of the Adoption Act for three reasons: (a) because she abandoned the children, (b) because she failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern or responsibility as to the welfare of the children, and (c) because she had deserted the children for more than three months prior to the filing of the supplemental petitions.
In early June 1984, the circuit court heard testimony in support of and in opposition to the DCFS supplemental petitions. DCFS' principal witness was Ms. Vivian Robinson, the same DCFS child-welfare worker who had testified at the June 1, 1983, hearing on the petition to terminate the order for continuance under supervision and the official who had signed the supplemental petitions on behalf of DCFS. Ms. Robinson recounted the events of the spring of 1983 leading to the initial placement of Dorothy and Joseph in foster care, adding additional details. Ms. Robinson stated that respondent left Eldorado in April 1983, leaving the children with her husband's sister, Lena, where they remained until May. Thereafter, the children spent a few days with their grandmother prior to being placed in foster homes by DCFS.
Respondent apparently returned to town a short time later and met with Ms. Robinson on June 28, 1983. During that meeting Ms. Robinson advised respondent that if she wanted to regain custody of the children she would have to meet certain "goals," including providing a home and food. She also added that it would be "a good idea" for respondent to take "parenting" classes. On July 1, 1983, at respondent's request, respondent met with the children in Ms. Robinson's office. Ms. Robinson stated that respondent showed no affection for the children but admitted that she was not present at all times during respondent's visit with her children.
The precise "goals" established by Ms. Robinson at the June 28 meeting which respondent was to meet in order to regain custody of her children are unclear. She subsequently testified that she explained to respondent that if respondent wanted to get her children back "she should get a house or a place to live and get a job, some kind of income, medical services and I recommended parenting classes to her." Ms. Robinson stated that she wrote down these "goals" for respondent and discussed them with her at subsequent meetings in July and September. She also retained a copy for her files, but it was not produced at trial.
Following the July 1, 1983, meeting, Ms. Robinson heard nothing further from respondent until about September 21, when she, Ms. Robinson, advised her that there was to be another court hearing in the latter part of September. Respondent did not at that time request a visit with her children. After the September 27, 1983, court hearing at which the agreed adjudication of wardship noted above was entered, Ms. Robinson next saw respondent in the first or second week of November when respondent stopped by her office to say that she was going to get straightened out. Respondent was not seen thereafter until March 14, 1984. Neither at the November meeting nor at any other time before March 14, 1984, had respondent asked for a visit with the children, shown any interest in them, or even asked how they were doing. Recalled as a witness later in the proceeding, Ms. Robinson gave further details regarding the November 1983 meeting with respondent. She related that respondent and Mr. Wright had come to her office together to talk "about [sic] they were going to get things straightened out and everything." At that time only Mr. Wright had requested a visit with the children. Although respondent was present at the time, she did not request a visit. Following this meeting, Ms. Robinson set up a visitation with the children for both of the parents but neither respondent nor Mr. Wright appeared. Mr. Wright had come to Ms. Robinson's office later to explain that he could not make the visitation because he had been in jail on a traffic offense and that respondent had not made the visitation because she had gone to Kentucky with another man. At the meeting on March 14, Ms. Robinson told respondent that DCFS was filing a petition to terminate her parental rights. When told that, respondent expressed no emotion. At that same meeting Ms. Robinson told respondent she should see a lawyer if she had any interest in her children. Sometime in April respondent asked Ms. Robinson for a visit with the children but, because of a DCFS policy that denies parental visitation after the filing of a petition to terminate parental rights, respondent's request was denied.
On cross-examination at the June 1, 1984, hearing, Ms. Robinson admitted that it was part of her job to set up "parenting" classes and supervise the home as well. She had not, she stated, been able to set up any "parenting" classes for respondent because she had been unable to find her. Respondent had given her the telephone number of Terry Vailes, and when Ms. Robinson called she found it to have been disconnected. Respondent had also given Ms. Robinson an address of a commercial hotel, but when she called her, the respondent had moved. Ms. Robinson also sought to locate respondent through the Illinois Department of Public Aid, to no avail. She also had checked with the Wright family, but they did not know respondent's whereabouts.
On cross-examination by the guardian ad litem for the children, Ms. Robinson stated that she had made it clear to respondent that following the adjudication of wardship on September 30, 1983, she would be able to visit with the children on request.
According to Ms. Robinson, respondent did not request visitation with her children at any time between September 1983 and March 14, 1984. During this period Ms. Robinson claims that respondent did not call or write to the children, attempt to contribute to their support, or send them Christmas or birthday cards. Later in the proceedings, however, Ms. Robinson stated that respondent visited Dorothy in her office on September 27, 1983, the day of the adjudicatory hearing.
After Ms. Robinson completed her testimony, DCFS called Clarence Wright as its final witness. Mr. Wright testified that he was respondent's husband but that the two had been separated for approximately one year. According to Mr. Wright, he and respondent had visited DCFS' office in November 1983 to set up a visit with their children. The visit was scheduled for the following month, but he was unable to attend because he had been arrested for a traffic offense. Mr. Wright stated that he had voluntarily relinquished his parental rights because of a nervous condition and because of his employment. When asked about respondent's skills as a parent, Mr. Wright stated, ...