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In re A.B.

October 19, 1999

IN RE A.B., S.B., A.B., J.B., AND T.B., MINORS
(THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, PETITIONER-APPELLEE, V. C.B., RESPONDENT-APPELLANT)



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County. Nos. 97-JA-224, 97-JA-225, 97-JA-226, 97-JA-227 & 97-JA-228 Honorable Victoria A. Rossetti, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Rapp

Respondent, C.B., appeals from separate orders entered in the circuit court of Lake County terminating her parental rights to her five children. She contends (1) the trial court erred in finding her to be an unfit parent under section 1(D) of the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/1(D) (West Supp. 1997)); (2) the trial court improperly admitted and considered certain documents and related testimony; and (3) the termination of her parental rights is not in the best interests of the children. Respondent's ex-husband, Norman, is not a party to this appeal, having previously surrendered his parental rights to all five children. We affirm.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

[Nonpublishable material removed under Supreme Court Rule 23.] In June 1997, the State filed separate petitions for termination of respondent's parental rights as to each of her five children. The petitions were identical, alleging unfitness due to (1) abandonment (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(a) (West 1996)); (2) the failure to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern, or responsibility as to the children's welfare (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(b) (West 1996)); (3) the desertion of the children for more than three months prior to the commencement of adoption proceedings (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(c) (West 1996)); (4) substantial neglect (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(d) (West 1996)); (5) the failure to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis for the removal of the children or to make reasonable progress toward the return of the children within 12 months after they were adjudicated neglected (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m) (West 1996)); and (6) the failure for a period of 12 months to (i) visit the children, (ii) communicate with the children or the agency, although able to do so and not prevented from doing so by an agency or by court order, or (iii) maintain contact with or plan for the future of the children although physically able to do so (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(n) (West 1996)). Therefore, the petition alleged, it was in the best interests of the children that respondent's parental rights be terminated and that DCFS be given the authority to consent to adoption. Hearings on the petitions were held beginning May 27, 1998.

Prior to testimony being offered at the unfitness hearing, the State asked the trial court to take judicial notice of the entire underlying court file, which contained the original adjudicatory petitions and orders, numerous agency reports, letters, and other documents pertaining to the case. Over respondent's hearsay objection, the trial court granted the request.

Diane Roche, an employee of Arden Shore Children and Family Services (Arden Shore), told the trial court that she was the supervisor of clinical services in charge of the foster care program. In March 1995, Roche was the direct supervisor of Janet Sterling, the caseworker assigned to the B. children.

Roche identified part of a client service plan prepared by Ms. Sterling for C.B. and the B. children in March 1995. Client service plans are prepared in each case and evaluated every six months at administrative case reviews (ACRs), at which time new plans are developed. It is a requirement that parents be given a copy of each plan in order to adequately inform them what they have to accomplish. Roche testified that client service plans are prepared in the ordinary course of the agency's business and are made contemporaneous with the events recorded.

After establishing this, the prosecutor said, "Your Honor, at this point, before even asking any specifics as to this -- the tasks and objectives of this plan, the State would ask to admit that part of the [client service plan] into evidence." Over respondent's objection that it did not qualify as a business record, the trial court admitted the service plan into evidence pursuant to section 115--5 of the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1963 (Code of Criminal Procedure) (725 ILCS 5/115--5 (West 1996)). Roche was then permitted to testify regarding specifics of the service plans. This pattern was repeated with numerous other service plans.

[Nonpublishable material removed under Supreme Court Rule 23.]

At the Conclusion of the hearing, the trial court held that the State proved by clear and convincing evidence that respondent was unfit. In rendering its decision, the trial court relied on the "testimony and all of the reports and information in 94 J 729 [the underlying neglect file]," citing numerous letters, reports, and ACR summaries contained in the file.

[Nonpublishable material removed under Supreme Court Rule 23.]

The trial court subsequently ruled that it was in the children's best interests that C.B.'s parental rights be terminated. Respondent's posttrial motion was heard and denied. A notice of appeal was subsequently filed.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Admissibility of Client Service Plans and Related Testimony Under the Business Records Exception

Respondent argues that reversal is warranted because the trial court improperly admitted and considered the client service plans under the business records exception to the hearsay rule and improperly permitted extensive testimony regarding the specifics of the plans. The admission of such evidence generally falls within the sound discretion of the trial court. In re V.T., 306 Ill. App. 3d 817, 819 (1999). However, this court has recognized that a trial court's determination that a particular statement is or is not hearsay (either under the common law or pursuant to statute) is a question of law because it does not involve the exercise of discretion, fact finding, or credibility assessments. Halleck v. Coastal Building Maintenance Co., 269 Ill. App. 3d 887, 891 (1995). Only after a trial court has made the legal determination that a particular statement is or is not hearsay is it vested with the discretion to admit or bar the evidence (see Halleck, 269 Ill. App. 3d at 891) based upon relevancy, prejudice, or other legally ...


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