Appeal from Circuit Court of Adams County Nos. 93J158 93J159 93J160 93J161 Honorable Chet W. Vahle, Judge Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Steigmann
In December 1993, the trial court adjudicated C.M. (born in 1985) (hereinafter C.A.M.), R.M., Jr. (born in 1988), K.M. (born in 1991), and C.M. (born in 1993) (hereinafter C.H.M.), the minor children of respondent, Janice Ringer (then Janice Morris), neglected minors (705 ILCS 405/2-3(1)(a) (West Supp. 1993)). The court later adjudicated the children wards of the court and appointed the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) as their guardian with the power to place them.
In March 1998, the State filed a supplemental petition to terminate respondent's parental rights regarding these children, alleging that respondent (1) was unable to discharge her parental responsibilities (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(p) (West Supp. 1997)) and (2) had failed to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis for the children's removal (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m) (West Supp. 1997)). In September 1998, the trial court conducted a bifurcated hearing, in which it first adjudicated respondent an unfit parent on both grounds alleged and later terminated respondent's parental rights.
Respondent appeals, arguing that the trial court's finding of parental unfitness was against the manifest weight of the evidence. We reverse.
In August 1993, the State filed petitions for adjudication of wardship of respondent's four children, alleging that respondent and her husband at the time, Ronald Morris, neglected their children by failing to provide adequate shelter because they were evicted from their apartment and two different shelters (705 ILCS 405/2-3 (West 1992)). The State also alleged that respondent and Ronald refused to accept the housing opportunities that the State provided them. (Although the trial court terminated Ronald's parental rights in the same proceeding when it terminated respondent's parental rights, Ronald did not participate in that proceeding and has not appealed from the decision. Accordingly, we discuss the evidence relating to Ronald only to the extent necessary to put the State's allegations against respondent in perspective.)
Respondent and Ronald were both hearing impaired, and that fact caused some delay in adjudicating the children's wardship. However, after conducting a hearing on the allegations of neglect in December 1993 and a Dispositional hearing in March 1994, the trial court adjudicated the children as wards pursuant to section 2-22 of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (Act) (705 ILCS 405/2-22 (West 1994)), placed them in the custody of DCFS, and granted DCFS the power to place the children in foster care. DCFS subsequently placed the children in the foster home of Kathy and Mike Graham.
In January 1996, the State filed its first petition to terminate respondent's parental rights, alleging that respondent was an unfit parent because she (1) had failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern, or responsibility as to the children's welfare (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(b) (West 1996)) and (2) had failed to make reasonable progress toward the return of the children within 12 months after adjudication of the children as neglected minors (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m) (West 1996)). However, in June 1996, the trial court struck the original petition to terminate respondent's parental rights, apparently because the court then learned that the Grahams were interfering with relations between respondent and her children. In August 1996, the court ordered the Grahams to refrain from discussing the children's case with the children.
In March 1998, the State filed a second petition to terminate respondent's parental rights relating to all four children, alleging this time that respondent was an unfit parent because she (1) was unable to discharge her parental responsibilities (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(p) (West Supp. 1997)), and (2) had failed to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis for the removal of the children (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m) (West Supp. 1997)). (Although the State in January 1996 had included in its first petition to terminate respondent's parental rights the allegation that she had failed to make reasonable progress toward the return of her children, the State's March 1998 termination petition contained no such allegation, and the record does not reveal the reason for its omission.) In September 1998, the court conducted a bifurcated hearing on the State's petition and granted it. What follows is a summary of the evidence presented during the fitness portion of that hearing.
Michael Spohr testified that he was respondent's DCFS caseworker from August 1994 until August 1996. When Spohr received the case in August 1994, respondent and Ronald were already living in a small apartment that Spohr thought would provide adequate shelter for the children. The only problem was that respondent's sister was living in the apartment with respondent and Ronald. However, respondent and her sister or both agreed that respondent's sister would move out if necessary. Respondent later moved into new housing, which Spohr unconditionally found acceptable, but Spohr did not say when the move occurred.
According to Spohr, respondent attended parenting classes and successfully completed those classes in November or December 1994. Spohr noticed an initial improvement in respondent's parenting skills after she had completed her parenting classes, but he thought her skills later declined.
Tracy Stucker was a caseworker at Hobby Horse Child Welfare Agency (Hobby Horse) and acted as a homemaker, or someone who supervises visitation, for the visits between respondent and her children beginning in June 1995. When Stucker initially received respondent's case, respondent was living in a different community than the Grahams, and the children required transportation to the visits. Stucker often personally provided this transportation, but she could not control the children in the car; they would kick, scream, and otherwise misbehave while being transported to the visit. Eventually, DCFS changed the location of the visits to a church near the children's foster home.
In January 1996, Spohr began allowing respondent to have unsupervised visits with the two oldest children (C.A.M. and R.M., Jr.) in her home. Homemakers would drop by during those visits. Shortly after the unsupervised visits began, the State filed its first petition to terminate respondent's parental rights.
In February 1996, Mary Louise Fuller, an outpatient therapist at the Cass County Mental Health Association who was providing counseling to respondent, C.A.M. and R.M., Jr., sent a letter of resignation to DCFS. Fuller's letter, which was admitted into evidence, stated that Kathy Graham was interfering with the case and with Fuller's effectiveness. When Fuller wrote the letter, she believed Kathy would never cease interfering with the case. DCFS continued the placement of the children in the Grahams' foster care.
Later in the spring of 1996, respondent divorced Ronald. Spohr had told respondent that she would not get her children back as long as Ronald, who was an abusive alcoholic, was in the home and would not follow the service plan. Respondent believed that she could increase the likelihood of securing her children's return by divorcing Ronald.
Spohr testified that in March 1996, one of the homemakers checked in during an unsupervised visit of two children, and they were missing. Respondent thought that they were playing in the yard, but the homemaker and respondent later discovered that the children were approximately two blocks away playing video games in a laundromat. At the time, the children were ages 7 and 9½.
Spohr then decided to restrict respondent to only supervised visits. Stucker continued to attend these visits and opined that respondent was unable to control her children. Stucker also testified that on two occasions, C.H.M. ran into a street, and respondent did not notice. Stucker retrieved C.H.M., whom respondent then scolded. Stucker and respondent agreed to put C.H.M. in timeout as punishment, but respondent allowed C.H.M. out of timeout before the child's time there had expired.Stucker prepared a visitation report concerning the visits from April 1996 to July 1996. That report, which was admitted into evidence, documented numerous occasions when respondent was unable to control her children. However, the report also documented several occasions when the homemakers were likewise unable to control the children, either before or during the visit, or in the car trip back to the Grahams' house.
Stucker's report also documented several occasions when respondent did properly discipline the children. For example, after the two incidents involving C.H.M.'s running into the street, a visit occurred during which respondent and the children took a walk along a street. Stucker wrote, "[Respondent] did a good job keeping up with the little ones running down the road. She was strict about them walking on the side of the road and not in the middle." Nevertheless, Stucker's report concludes as follows:
"For the most part, visits are usually chaotic due to the inappropriate behaviors of the children. ***
*** The poor quality of the visits is due to [respondent's] inability to control the children's behaviors. When workers intervene and attempt to have [respondent] provide appropriate disciplinary measures, she often becomes hostile toward the worker(s) and ignores the redirection stating that 'I am the mom!' This results in the children continuing to act out which forces the workers to take on the responsibility of parenting."
During her testimony at the unfitness hearing, Stucker criticized respondent's parenting skill because respondent sometimes brought food to the visitations and cooked her children a meal. According to Stucker, respondent spent too much time preparing the food and not enough time interacting with her children during these visits. When respondent did not cook, one of the workers would drive respondent and the children to a fast-food restaurant.
Stucker also criticized respondent for relying too heavily upon C.A.M. to aid in parenting the other children. Stucker thought that respondent had a peer relationship with C.A.M. rather than a parent-child relationship. On cross-examination, Stucker acknowledged that C.A.M. was the oldest child and the most proficient at sign language. DCFS did not provide sign interpreters during the early visits. When no interpreters were present, Stucker herself relied, in part, upon C.A.M. to communicate with respondent. In response to questions from the court, Stucker stated that respondent attempted to teach the younger children sign language. On a few occasions, respondent used flash cards and spent ...