Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 14th Judicial Circuit, Rock Island County, Illinois. No. 91-J-114. Honorable John R. McClean, Jr., Judge, Presiding.
Present - Honorable Allan L. Stouder, Presiding Justice, Honorable William E. Holdridge, Justice, Honorable Kent Slater, Justice. Slater and Holdridge, JJ., concur.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stouder
PRESIDING JUSTICE STOUDER delivered the opinion of the court:
The trial court granted a petition by the State to terminate the parental rights of the respondent, Alicia Jones, to her three-year-old son, C.J. The respondent appeals. For the reasons which follow, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.
The record reveals that C.J. was born on July 30, 1991, while the respondent was incarcerated in the Dwight Correctional Center for Women in Dwight, Illinois. Subsequently, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) took protective custody of C.J. and placed him in licensed foster care. On August 27, 1991, a juvenile petition was filed alleging that C.J. was a dependent minor. Specifically, it alleged that the child lacked proper care due to the incarceration of his mother, and that his father was unknown.
On April 2, 1992, a letter from the respondent to her appointed counsel was filed with the court. The letter indicated that the respondent wanted to relinquish her rights to C.J. At that time, she was incarcerated in the Ohio Reformatory for Women after being released from the Dwight facility. The court then entered stipulated orders which adjudicated C.J. dependent and continued his custody in licensed foster care under the guardianship of DCFS.
On February 7, 1994, DCFS filed a petition to terminate parental rights. The petition alleged that the mother and unknown father were unfit parents for: (1) failing to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern or responsibility for the child's welfare; and (2) evidencing an intent to forego their parental rights by their failure for a period of 12 months to visit the child, to communicate with the child or agency, or to maintain contact with and plan for the future of the child. 750 ILCS 50/1 D(b),(n) (West 1992).
On April 11, 1994, a letter from the respondent was filed with the court. In the letter, the respondent told the court that she was currently incarcerated in the Northeast Pre-release Center in Cleveland, Ohio. She said that she wanted to retain her parental rights with her son and to have him placed with her after her release. She noted that she had tried unsuccessfully to contact C.J.'s social worker for approximately one year. Lastly, she requested a caseworker who would keep her advised about her son.
On May 17, 1994, the respondent filed a motion to continue the termination hearing scheduled for July 19, 1994. The motion stated that the respondent wished to contest the petition and that she would not be released from prison in Ohio until May 1, 1995. Therefore, she requested a continuance until she could personally attend. Alternatively, she requested that the hearing be continued at the end of the State's evidence so she could review the transcripts from the proceeding and respond accordingly.
On July 19, 1994, the court denied the motion and proceeded to the hearing on the petition without the respondent's participation.
At the termination hearing, three caseworkers from Lutheran Social Services (LSS) testified. Robert VanSevern stated that he had been C.J.'s caseworker since October 1993. When he became the caseworker, the respondent's last known address was the Cuyahoga County Jail in Cleveland, Ohio. He never attempted to determine the respondent's location or send her copies of any client service plan since C.J.'s file had already been screened for termination of parental rights.
Kimberly Williams testified that she was C.J.'s caseworker from August 1991 until February 1992. She arranged a visit between the respondent and C.J. on December 17, 1991. During the visit, the respondent asked about C.J.'s welfare and indicated that she was considering surrendering her parental rights. The respondent did not want Williams to bring C.J. to Dwight for a visit the next month. Williams told her to contact her to request a visit and left her business card.
On December 19, 1991, Williams sent a letter to the respondent. The letter noted C.J.'s location, his foster parent, and information about requesting visitation. Williams also sent letters to the respondent at Dwight dated February 12, 1992, and July 7, 1992. The respondent did not contact Williams while she remained the caseworker. A client service plan prepared by Williams stated that the respondent was released from Dwight on February 20, 1992.
Toni Weeks testified that she was C.J.'s caseworker from October 1992 to October 1993. Weeks noted that in January 1993 she wrote a letter to the respondent's maternal grandmother requesting the respondent's current address. The ...