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.]
Respondent testified on her own behalf. It was her belief that the children were initially removed from the home due to neglect by her husband. She claimed that she never admitted to the neglect petitions. (The record reveals otherwise, at least as to failing to provide proper or necessary support, education, or medical care). Contrary to earlier testimony, respondent maintained that she attended each twice-a-week visit scheduled in 1995. She claimed to have called Lynn Sweeney to set up each visit in advance. According to respondent, there were times when she would show up for a visit only to have her caseworker and the children be no-shows. She stated that none of the cancellations were her fault and "that there were different excuses every time." Respondent testified that she started parenting classes, but did not complete them at the time because she had to meet her ride in an unsafe neighborhood. She did, however, complete her domestic violence counseling. Respondent claimed to be in regular contact with her caseworkers, even though they switched constantly.
According to respondent, from 1994 through 1996, the children were placed with their paternal grandmother. (The record reveals otherwise). Respondent testified that she contacted the children three or four times per week by phone during this time. However, respondent alleged she was prohibited from sending gifts to the children and was instead required to bring any gifts to visitation meetings. According to respondent, she made efforts to get the required psychological evaluations, but she was initially unsuccessful.
In February 1994 and August 1994, respondent obtained emergency orders of protection against Norman because of his violence toward her. A plenary order of protection was issued October 21, 1994, and remained in effect until October 21, 1996. During the time the order was in effect, respondent alleged that Norman often showed up at her residence during the night, beat on the door, and threatened to kill her. The only time Norman left respondent alone was when he was in jail. Respondent filed a petition for dissolution of marriage in July 1997.
Respondent told the trial court that she moved to a two-bedroom apartment in Crystal Lake in late 1995 and was waiting for a three- bedroom apartment to become available "because [she] was fighting for custody of [her] kids." Respondent regularly advised her caseworkers of her whereabouts and testified that she consistently tested negative for drugs. She also notified her caseworkers about her situation with Norman. At one point respondent requested that she have court dates separate from Norman because of her fear of him. The request was denied.
In March 1996, respondent moved to Alabama because Norman had gotten out of jail and was threatening her again. Every time she moved to a different city in Illinois, Norman would find her. Respondent's entire family, except her children, lived in Alabama. Once in Alabama, respondent found a job as a machinist and began the process of buying land and a trailer so that she would have a place for her and her children to live. Respondent claimed to have attempted to contact her caseworker to arrange for visitation with her children when she returned for court dates. Her attempts were allegedly unsuccessful partly due to the failure of either DCFS or Catholic Charities to inform her of a change in caseworkers. Respondent claimed to have traveled to Illinois from Alabama at least two times to attend court, but she did not see her children either time. While in Alabama, respondent claimed that she communicated with her children by telephone once a weekend. However, she was prohibited from sending them cards or gifts. She attempted to find parenting classes in Alabama, but was unsuccessful.
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Respondent returned to Illinois in June 1997 "to fight for [her] children." When she arrived in court shortly thereafter, she was arrested and ordered to serve a six-month jail sentence on a rule to show cause because she had missed earlier court dates and not completed tasks ordered by the court. After her release from jail, respondent found employment and took up residence in a hotel. Respondent did not go back to Alabama "because [she] didn't want to go back to jail." Within months, respondent had rented a studio apartment, completed parenting classes, and undergone counseling and a mental health evaluation. Respondent was in weekly contact with her caseworker, Libby Lee.
[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 ...