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02/20/97 S.G. ET AL. v. PEARLIE G.

February 20, 1997

IN RE S.G. ET AL., MINORS (THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, APPELLANT,
v.
PEARLIE G., APPELLEE).



The Honorable Justice Nickels delivered the opinion of the court. Justice McMORROW, dissenting. Chief Justice Heiple and Justice Miller join in this dissent.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nickels

The Honorable Justice NICKELS delivered the opinion of the court:

In this appeal, we decide whether section 2-14 of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (705 ILCS 405/2-14 (West 1994)) requires that the circuit court dismiss a petition for adjudication of wardship where the adjudicatory hearing is not completed within the statutory time period. The State filed petitions for adjudication of wardship in the circuit court of Cook County alleging that each of Pearlie G.'s three daughters S.G., W.G. and C.G., and her son K.G. were abused and neglected. Pearlie filed a motion to dismiss the petitions, alleging that the statutory time period for an adjudicatory hearing on those petitions had expired. The circuit court denied Pearlie's motion to dismiss, finding that the dismissal of the petitions would not be in the best interest of the children. The circuit court subsequently adjudicated the four children wards of the court and Pearlie appealed. The appellate court reversed the adjudication of wardship. 277 Ill. App. 3d 803, 661 N.E.2d 437, 214 Ill. Dec. 583. The appellate court determined that the plain language of section 2-14 requires the dismissal of a petition where the adjudicatory hearing is not completed within the statutory time period. We granted the State's petition for leave to appeal. 155 Ill. 2d R. 315. We affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

On February 27, 1991, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) investigated a report that Pearlie's boyfriend had sexually abused her daughter W.G. DCFS found evidence to support the report, but did not bring the family to the attention of the juvenile court. W.G. eventually recanted her allegations against the boyfriend, claiming that she fabricated the charges because she did not like the boyfriend and wished to estrange him from her mother.

On April 21, 1992, the Chicago police department began investigating reports of abuse that Pearlie's son, K.G., made to the DCFS hot line. In these, K.G. reported that his mother had been sexually abusing him. S.G. reported that she witnessed one of the incidents of sexual abuse between K.G. and their mother. Pearlie was arrested and charged with aggravated criminal sexual assault. In the following days, both K.G. and S.G. recanted their allegations against Pearlie.

On April 28, 1992, the State's Attorney's office, on behalf of DCFS, filed separate petitions for adjudication of wardship for each of Pearlie's four children. The petitions alleged that there was sexual abuse in the home and that the children were neglected in that their environment was injurious to their welfare. Also on April 28, 1992, the public guardian's office was appointed to represent the children and the first of two temporary custody hearings was held. See 705 ILCS 405/2-10 (West 1994).

At the first temporary custody hearing, Donna Hendricks from DCFS testified concerning both Pearlie's boyfriend's reported abuse of W.G. and Pearlie's reported abuse of K.G. Pearlie did not attend the hearing because she was incarcerated at this time on the charges of sexually abusing K.G. The trial judge found probable cause for the charges of abuse and neglect and further determined that it was in the best interest of the children to name a temporary custodian to place them.

After being released, Pearlie was granted a second custody hearing where she was represented by the public defender's office. The second temporary custody hearing was held on June 22 and June 23, 1992. At this hearing, Assistant State's Attorney Adam Grosch testified that K.G. reported being forced by his mother to engage in sexual activity on two occasions. Grosch also testified that S.G. corroborated K.G.'s account of the abuse.

W.G. also testified at the hearing. W.G. testified that she had fabricated the story of abuse by her mother's boyfriend because she disliked him and wished to prevent her mother's continued involvement with him. W.G. further testified that she believed that her accusation gave K.G. the idea to accuse their mother. K.G. declined to testify at the hearing. The trial judge declined to change his finding that there was probable cause for the charges and upheld his decision to award temporary custody of the children to DCFS.

At a hearing held on September 1, 1992, the circuit court entered orders of default against the respondent fathers who had been served by publication but failed to appear. At a hearing held on September 3, 1992, the trial judge and the attorneys for the parties acknowledged that the defaulting of the fathers on September 1 began the 90-day speedy-trial provision contained in section 2-14. The trial judge and the parties agreed that the adjudicatory hearing must therefore be held by November 30, 1992, and the trial judge set November 10 as the date for the adjudicatory hearing.

Also at the September 3 hearing, the trial judge granted the public guardian's motion to withdraw his representation of W.G. Attorney Mary Bird from the Legal Assistance Foundation then entered her appearance and was appointed guardian ad litem for W.G. The public guardian's office continued its representation of the remaining siblings.

On October 22, 1992, the assistant public guardian representing the three remaining siblings requested a continuance because she required surgery and would therefore be unavailable for the November 10 trial date. The trial judge recognized that the 90-day term was set to expire at the end of November, but he lamented that because of his crowded docket there was no other available court time to hold the hearing prior to the end of that term. The judge thereupon found that a continuance was in the best interest of the children and reset the adjudicatory hearing for December 15, 1992. Presumably the court was acting pursuant to section 2-14(c) of the Juvenile Court Act (705 ILCS 405/2-14(c) (West 1994)), which allows for one 30-day continuance of the 90-day statutory period.

On December 15, 1992, the circuit court first held a pretrial hearing to dispose of several motions. Among them, the court granted W.G.'s motion to be returned to the custody of her mother under an order of protection. Thereafter, the court heard opening statements from all parties and the testimony of one witness, Robert O'Connor, who is an investigator with DCFS. After this sole witness, the court adjourned the hearing and sought to schedule the remaining court time necessary to conclude the adjudicatory hearing.

In trying to schedule the remaining time necessary for the adjudicatory hearing, the trial judge was cognizant that the statutory deadline was approaching. The judge noted that it was "very unlikely" that the case could be completed by that time because of the busy court calendar. A discussion concerning scheduling was then conducted off the record. The trial judge thereafter offered the parties the choice to either hear the case on a piecemeal basis after the regular call each day when time was available, or to schedule the case in a block of time in February. Pearlie's attorney requested that the case proceed immediately on a piecemeal basis. The trial judge ordered that the case proceed on a piecemeal basis starting on December 17, 1996.

On December 17, the court did not have enough time at the end of the call to take any evidence. However, time was devoted to a motion filed that day by W.G.'s attorney seeking to disqualify the public guardian's office from representing the remaining siblings. The motion alleged that the public guardian's representation of the remaining siblings presented a conflict of interest with W.G., a former client. The trial judge ordered a briefing schedule and the matter was continued for a hearing to be conducted on January 11, 1993.

On January 11, 1993, the court denied the motion to disqualify the public guardian's office, ruling that any further delays in the matter would not be in the best interest of the children. The court then again offered to hear the case on a piecemeal basis or alternatively to schedule the case in a block at some future time. A scheduling conference was again held off the record. The court scheduled the adjudicatory hearing to continue on March 8.

Pearlie's attorney subsequently filed a motion to dismiss the petitions for adjudication of wardship for all the children. The motion alleged that the petitions must be dismissed pursuant to the speedy-trial provisions contained in section 2-14 of the Juvenile Court Act. Section 2-14 provides that an adjudicatory hearing shall be held within 90 days of service of process, except that one 30-day continuance may be granted for good cause. 705 ILCS 405/2-14 (West 1994). Section 2-14 provides that, where the adjudicatory hearing is not timely held, the petition "shall be dismissed without prejudice." 705 ILCS 405/2-14(c) (West 1994).

Prior to resuming the adjudicatory hearing on March 8, the court ruled on the motion to dismiss the petitions. The judge did not dispute that the statutory time period for an adjudicatory hearing had expired, but denied the motion because he found that the dismissal of the petitions would not be in the best interest of the minors. The adjudicatory hearing was then conducted over the next several days, concluding on March 12.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the court found that all the children were neglected because their environment was injurious to their welfare. The court further found that W.G. had been sexually abused, but the court ruled that the evidence failed to establish that K.G. had been sexually abused. At a dispositional hearing held on April 12, the court adjudged the children wards of the court. The court found that it was in the best interest of W.G., S.G. and C.G. to be placed in the custody of their mother under an order of protection. The court further held that K.G. should remain in the custody of DCFS.

Pearlie appealed from the adjudication of wardship. The appellate court reversed. 277 Ill. App. 3d 803, 661 N.E.2d 437, 214 Ill. Dec. 583. The appellate court concluded that the plain language of section 2-14 requires the dismissal without prejudice of any petition in which the adjudicatory hearing is not completed within the statutory time period. 277 Ill. App. 3d at 809. The appellate court rejected the State's argument that section 2-14 merely requires that the hearing begin, but not finish, prior to the statutory time limit. 277 Ill. App. 3d at 809.

We granted the State's petition for leave to appeal (155 Ill. 2d R. 315). The public guardian's office, representing S.G., C.G. and K.G., has also filed a brief in opposition to the appellate court's construction of section 2-14. The public defender's office represents Pearlie as appellee. W.G. is not a party to this appeal.

II. ANALYSIS

The State first argues that the appellate court's construction of section 2-14 violates the separation of powers provision of the Illinois Constitution of 1970 (Ill. Const. 1970, art. II, ยง 1) by invading the inherent powers of the court to protect children. The State also argues that the appellate court erred in giving section 2-14 a mandatory construction and in requiring that the adjudicatory hearing be completed, rather than commenced, within the statutory time period. The public guardian's office argues that Pearlie's counsel waived her statutory right to a prompt adjudicatory hearing by agreeing to the delays. The public guardian's office also argues that the motion filed by W.G.'s attorney to disqualify the public guardian's office tolled the statutory time period.

A court should avoid constitutional questions where the case may be decided on other grounds. Bonaguro v. County Officers Electoral Board, 158 Ill. 2d 391, 396, 199 Ill. Dec. 659, 634 N.E.2d 712 (1994). We therefore find it appropriate to first address whether as a matter of statutory construction the legislature intended for section 2-14 to require the mandatory dismissal of a petition where the adjudicatory hearing is not timely. We next address whether Pearlie waived her right to a prompt adjudicatory hearing and whether the motion seeking to disqualify the public guardian's office tolled the statutory time period. As we find it necessary, we conclude by addressing whether the mandatory dismissal of a petition pursuant to section 2-14 violates the constitutional principle of separation of powers.

A. Statutory Construction

In interpreting a statute, our objective is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the legislature. Hernon v. E.W. Corrigan Construction Co., 149 Ill. 2d 190, 194, 172 Ill. Dec. 200, 595 N.E.2d 561 (1992). The most reliable indicator of legislative intent is the language of the statute. People v. Bryant, 128 Ill. 2d 448, 455, 132 Ill. Dec. 415, 539 N.E.2d 1221 (1989). Section 2-14 of the Juvenile Court Act provides:

"(a) Purpose and policy. The legislature recognizes that serious delay in the adjudication of abuse, neglect, or dependency cases can cause grave harm to the minor and the family and that it frustrates the best interests of the minor and the effort to establish permanent homes for children in need. The purpose of this Section is to insure that *** the State of ...


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