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In re M.F.

April 23, 1999


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Madison County No. 95-J-000112 Honorable Michael J. Meehan, Judge, presiding

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Welch

Rule 23 Order filed

March 22, 1999; Motion to publish granted

On January 22, 1998, the circuit court of Madison County entered a judgment terminating the parental rights of Margaret Furlow with respect to her son, M.F. Margaret appeals. We reverse.

Margaret raises the following issues on appeal: (1) whether the allegations in the State's petition to terminate parental rights were proved where the State's witnesses did not testify from personal knowledge but relied on hearsay and case summaries, (2) whether the State failed to prove the allegations of unfitness against Margaret, and (3) whether the case must be remanded for a best-interests-of-the-child hearing because none was held after the finding of parental unfitness.

Margaret was born in 1971. Her son, M.F., was born on August 25, 1988. At time of the termination hearing, M.F. was not living with Margaret. The whereabouts of M.F.'s father are unknown, and there is some evidence that he is deceased.

Margaret has a history of criminal offenses and was arrested five times between October 1994, and March 17, 1995, for various offenses, including shoplifting, intent to sell cocaine, and traffic violations. In the four years prior to March 17, 1995, Margaret had nine indicated reports of abuse or neglect.

On February 6, 1995, the State brought a petition to adjudicate her son neglected, alleging that Margaret (1) chronically left the child with inappropriate caretakers without making appropriate arrangements for his care, (2) had a substance-abuse problem that greatly impaired her ability to provide adequate care and supervision, (3) took the child with her when she and her paramour bought crack cocaine, (4) smoked crack cocaine with her paramour in the child's presence, and (5) refused to cooperate with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). At a hearing on March 6, 1995, by agreement the court adjudicated the child neglected.

On September 15, 1997, the State brought a petition to terminate Furlow's parental rights and for the appointment of a guardian with the power to consent to an adoption. The petition stated that Margaret Furlow was an unfit person because (a) she failed to demonstrate a reasonable degree of responsibility as to the welfare of the child, (b) she failed to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that led to the removal of the child or to make reasonable progress toward the return of the child within 12 months after an adjudication of neglected minor under the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (705 ILCS 405/1-1 et seq. (West 1996)), and (c) she demonstrated her intent to forego her parental rights, the child being a ward of the court, as manifested by her failure for a period of 12 months to plan for the future of the child, although physically able to do so.

Margaret answered the petition by neither denying nor admitting the allegations but demanding strict proof.

On January 22, 1998, the circuit court entered an order finding that Margaret was unfit for each of the reasons alleged in the petition. The court also found that Margaret was not a credible witness and that Margaret admitted to evidence of a positive urine drop in September of 1997, indicating cocaine use. While the court noted that Margaret claimed that the test was in error, the court characterized Margaret's testimony as a series of weak excuses, rather than valid explanations for her failure to comply with services. The court concluded that it was in the best interests of the minor and the public that the minor remain a ward of the court and that any and all of Margaret's parental rights be terminated.

Margaret's first argument on appeal is that the circuit court relied on inadmissible hearsay testimony in terminating her parental rights. She contends that the only witnesses who presented evidence of her unfitness were Theresa Murphy, a case worker for Margaret and M.F., and Mary Phillips, a therapist who worked with Margaret and M.F. These two witnesses, Margaret states, offered evidence that was mostly a description of what DCFS workers had said and written. Because Margaret's arguments with respect to hearsay have no independent significance, we will consider the impact of the alleged hearsay statements in the context of the next issue Margaret raises: whether the State met its burden in proving Margaret's unfitness.

According to section 1 of the Adoption Act, an "`Unfit person' means any person whom the court shall find to be unfit to have a child, without regard to the likelihood that the child will be placed for adoption." 750 ILCS 50/1(D) (West Supp. 1998). Because the termination of parental rights is an extraordinarily serious matter, the State must prove unfitness by clear and convincing evidence. In re A.J., 296 Ill. App. 3d 903, 912 (1998). A trial court's finding of unfitness will not be reversed on appeal unless it is against the manifest weight of the evidence. In re A.J., 296 Ill. App. 3d at 912.

A finding of unfitness may be based on evidence sufficient to support any one statutory ground, even if the evidence is not sufficient to support the other grounds alleged. In re D.L.W., 226 Ill. App. 3d 805, 809 (1992). Whether a parent's efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis of the removal are reasonable involves a subjective judgment of the particular parent's efforts; however, the reasonableness of the progress toward the child's return is ...

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