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In re Lakita B.

June 30, 1998


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Burke

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County.

Honorable Stephen Y. Broadhay, judge Presiding.

Following an adjudicatory hearing on the State's petitions for adjudication of wardship of Lakita B., Jamal H., William J., Lavert J. and Malik H. (minors), the circuit court found the minors to be neglected and abused pursuant to section 2--3 of the Juvenile Court Act (Act) (705 ILCS 405/2--3(1), (2) (West 1992)), and at a subsequent dispositional hearing, as required by section 2--22 (705 ILCS 405/2--22 (West 1992), adjudicated all of the children wards of the court and found that their mother, respondent Barbara B., was unfit and unable to care for, protect, train or discipline the minors for other than financial reasons pursuant to section 2--27 of the Act (705 ILCS 405/2-- 27 (West 1992)). On appeal, respondent contends that the trial court's finding that she was unfit to care for, protect, train or discipline her children was against the manifest weight of the evidence. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

On March 25, 1995, respondent's live-in boyfriend, Tony Harris (Harris), poured rubbing alcohol and charcoal fluid on respondent's 10-year-old son, William J., and set him on fire. As a result of Harris' acts, William J. sustained "70% total body-surface-area burn" and had several surgeries. Thereafter, the State filed petitions for adjudication of wardship, requesting that the trial court adjudicate William J. and respondent's other children, Lakita B., Jamal H., Lavert J., and Malik H., wards of the court. Harris was subsequently sentenced to 75 years' imprisonment.

An adjudicatory hearing on all petitions was held on March 27, 1996. Edward Schultz, a child protective investigator for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), testified that he had an interview with the minor, Lakita B., during which Lakita had told him about the March 25 incident involving her and her brother William. Lakita told Schultz that respondent had become very upset that night after she realized that her food stamps had been stolen. According to Lakita, William admitted to respondent that he had taken the food stamps. Lakita further stated that she and William had both been "on punishment" that night, which meant that they were not allowed to have dinner. Lakita also stated that William took the food stamps "so he could buy food when he was hungry."

When Harris came home later that evening, Lakita heard respondent tell Harris, "Them [expletive deleted] done stole my money." Harris began yelling and screaming and throwing things around the house, and he told Lakita and William to leave the house. Lakita told Schultz that she and William left and stood out in the hallway "as they had no place to go." After a short while, Harris opened the door and told Lakita and William to get back in the house and tell him who stole the food stamps. Lakita told Harris that she did not take the food stamps, but William remained silent. Harris then said, "We are going to do this the way the Indians used to do it when people tell lies!" Thereafter, Harris inserted one end of a toilet paper roll down Lakita's collar and "made a trail" of the toilet paper to William where he fastened the other end of the toilet paper. Harris poured rubbing alcohol on the toilet paper and on the chest and shoulder areas of the minors. Respondent was present at this time, but "did not do anything." Harris kept asking, "Who stole the money?" When Harris lit Lakita's piece of toilet paper with a lighter, Lakita "quickly pulled it out and stamped it out."

Harris left the minors at one point and came back with a bottle of charcoal fluid which he poured on Lakita and William. At this time, respondent tried to grab the bottle of fluid away from Harris "and stop him," and Lakita and respondent were both crying and yelling for Harris to stop. Harris then told the children that "whoever moves first is the one who is lying." Harris took out a lighter and kept flicking the lighter near William's shoulder and then near Lakita's shoulder, but the lighter would not light. Harris then took a piece of paper, lit the paper on the stove and came back to William, who was "frozen and trembling" and could not respond to Harris' repeated question about who stole the money. According to Lakita, Harris then touched the lit paper to William's collar and "William was ablaze!" Thereafter, respondent "went to the sink to get some water to put William out," and then went to a neighbor's home to call the police. Lakita also told Schultz that she and William were "hit on the head" that night when Harris came home, and that Harris and respondent had whipped her with a belt on past occasions.

Schultz also testified to the content of an interview he had with respondent. Respondent first told Schultz that she wanted the children to stay with her and that "the whole incident was an accident." When Schultz asked respondent why she did not do anything when Harris poured alcohol on the children, respondent claimed that she went to tend to another crying child and she knew that Harris would never hurt William and Lakita "in a million years." Respondent admitted that Lakita and William were "on punishment" and had not eaten dinner in two nights.

After hearing all the evidence, the trial court found that Lakita, Jamal, William and Lavert were "abused or neglected" based on an "injurious environment" and substantial risk of harm as a result of the conduct of both respondent and Harris pursuant to section 2--3 of the Act. The court found that Malik, if left in the care of respondent and/or Harris, would also be subject to substantial risk of harm. The court also found that the conduct perpetrated by both Harris and respondent on March 25 constituted torture as to Lakita and William. The court stated that even though there was no conclusive evidence that respondent had been present in the room at the moment William was lit on fire, the fact that she was present when Harris poured a toxic substance on the children was sufficient evidence for a finding of torture.

On September 6, 1996, the Public Guardian filed a motion for a finding of unfitness against respondent pursuant to section 2--27(1) of the Act. At the Dispositional hearing on January 21, 1997, Richard LaBrie, director of C.A.U.S.E.S., testified that his agency was hired by DCFS to provide psychotherapy services to respondent. LaBrie stated that respondent claimed that she had been a victim of domestic violence perpetuated by Harris for two years. According to LaBrie, respondent told him that she had observed Harris physically abusing another child of his from a previous marriage prior to the March 25 incident. LaBrie also stated that respondent had made a "commitment" to meeting with her therapist every week and was willing to disclose personal information. LaBrie believed that respondent had "developed some insight" into her own history of child abuse in relation to her relationship with Harris. According to LaBrie, respondent had been making "some progress in understanding her role in the events that led to her son being injured." LaBrie further stated that respondent had "always" indicated that her relationship with her children was important to her and that she wanted them to return to her. LaBrie, however, did not recommend that respondent resume guardianship of the minors because he believed there were "serious and significant issues" that needed to be addressed regarding respondent's own treatment that would be relevant to her care of her children. LaBrie also testified that there had been some progress in respondent's ability to understand her "impaired judgment" regarding Harris' intent to cause harm to her children as being a product of respondent's own physical victimization as a child. LaBrie recommended continued treatment for respondent and stated there was "a lot of work to do" because issues that would cause concern about her capacity to exercise good judgment in the care of her children were "still active issues." LaBrie further stated that despite respondent's progress, he "certainly" could not state that respondent "has that judgment today."

Four other social workers who worked on respondent's and/or the minors' cases testified at the hearing. Dawn Pettway, a DCFS caseworker, testifed that although respondent's visits with her children had been "very appropriate," and she was regularly attending parenting classes, Pettway nonetheless did not believe the children should return to respondent's custody "at this point in time." Silver Edosio, an employee of Habilitative System Incorporation, testified that respondent's visits with the children had been "going very well," but that he would nonetheless recommend guardianship of the children to DCFS.

Laura Stivers, a caseworker assigned to Malik, testified that although respondent had been "cooperative" regarding the special needs of Malik as a Down's syndrome patient, it would not be in Malik's best interest to be returned home. Kelly Saccomando, program manager at Maryville Academy, testified that respondent visited Lakita at least one weekend a month and had also made special visits when needed. When asked about the withholding of food from Lakita by respondent, Saccomando replied that her "impression" was that such acts were performed mostly by Harris than by respondent.

A psychological evaluation of respondent was admitted into evidence. The evaluation revealed that respondent had continued to visit Harris in jail; respondent admitted that her children were usually punished by withholding food from them or hitting them with a belt; and respondent was intelligent, loved her children and wanted her children back. The evaluation also stated, however, that because respondent did not seem to understand the ...

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