The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Quinn
Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County, Child Protection Division, Honorable Francis A. Gembala, Judge Presiding.
Respondent-appellant, Michael Brent (respondent), appeals from both the circuit court's findings of parental unfitness and its order terminating respondent's parental rights and appointing a guardian with authority to consent to the minor's adoption. Based on the following factual findings and reasons, we affirm the circuit court's findings and order.
On December 5, 1991, a petition for adjudication of wardship was filed on behalf of Sheltanya S. (Sheltanya), who was born on January 22, 1986. The petition alleged that Sheltanya was neglected due to an injurious environment and that she was abused. Earlier that month, Sheltanya's mother, Lillie S., severely burned Sheltanya's hand. A finding of abuse was entered on August 5, 1992. After a dispositional hearing, the juvenile court found that Sheltanya's mother and father (respondent) were unfit. On March 3, 1994, the juvenile court ordered that a Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) administrator be appointed as guardian of Sheltanya with the right to place her. Sheltanya was placed with her maternal great-grandmother.
On September 27, 1996, the State filed a petition for appointment of a guardian with the right to consent to adoption. The petition alleged that both respondent and Sheltanya's mother, Lillie, were unfit pursuant to section 1(D) of the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/1 (D) (West 1998)) and section 2-29 of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (705 ILCS 405/2-29 (West 1994)), based on the following grounds: (1) they abandoned Sheltanya; (2) they failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, responsibility or concern as to Sheltanya's welfare; (3) they deserted Sheltanya for more than three months preceding the commencement of termination proceedings; (4) they failed to demonstrate a reasonable degree of interest, responsibility or concern as to Sheltanya's welfare during the first 30 days after her birth; (5) they failed to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis for the removal of the child, and/or they failed to make reasonable progress toward the return of Sheltanya within 9 months after the adjudication of neglect and abuse; and (6) they evidenced an intent to forego their parental rights. 750 ILCS 50/1 (D)(a), (D)(b), (D)(c), (D)(l), (D)(m), and (D)(n) (West 1998); 705 ILCS 405/2-29 (West 1994). Several other grounds for unfitness were alleged with respect to Lillie. The petition alleged that it was in the best interest of Sheltanya that a guardian be appointed with the right to consent to her adoption.
The State filed an amended supplemental petition on February 6, 1998, alleging that respondent and Lillie S. were unfit on the additional ground that they behaved in a depraved manner in violation of section 1(D)(i) of the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/1 (D)(i) (West 1994)), and section 2-29 of the Juvenile Court Act (705 ILCS 2-29 (West 1994)), based on their history of criminal convictions. Respondent's criminal history included the following: (1) a charge of burglary (720 ILCS 5/19-1 (West 1994)), to which he pled guilty and of which he was convicted on August 30, 1984, and for which he was sentenced to two years' probation; (2) a charge of unlawful use or possession of a weapon after having been convicted of the above burglary (720 ILCS 5/24-1.1(West 1994)), to which respondent pled guilty and of which he was convicted on February 7, 1989, and for which he was sentenced to five years' imprisonment; (3) a charge of robbery (720 ILCS 5/18-1 (West 1994)) to which respondent pled guilty and for which he was sentenced to three years' imprisonment on November 30, 1992; (4) a charge of possession of a controlled substance (720 ILCS 570/402(c) (West 1994)), to which respondent pled guilty and of which he was convicted on January 26, 1994, and for which he was sentenced to two years' imprisonment; (5) a charge of robbery (720 ILCS 5/18-1 (West 1994)), to which respondent pled guilty and of which he was convicted on December 6, 1995, and for which he was sentenced to three years' imprisonment; (6) a charge for the manufacture and delivery of cannabis (720 ILCS 550/5(d)(West 1994)), to which respondent pled guilty and of which he was convicted on December 6, 1995, and for which he was sentenced to three years' imprisonment; and (7) a charge for possession of a controlled substance (720 ILCS 570/402(c) (West 1994)), to which respondent pled guilty and of which he was convicted on December 19, 1995, and for which he was sentenced to one year of imprisonment.
The fitness hearing took place from May 26, 1998, to September 1, 1998. Respondent testified that he was incarcerated for possession of cannabis when Sheltanya was born in January of 1986. Respondent lived with his father and Lillie S. from the time Sheltanya was about one month old until she was about two years old. Lillie then left respondent, taking Sheltanya with her, and moved to a new location.
Respondent testified that he was not imprisoned from July 5, 1991, to November 30, 1992, but he did not know Sheltanya's whereabouts. Respondent testified that he went to visit Sheltanya at the house where she was staying, and he saw that she had a burn on her arm. Respondent testified that he then took Sheltanya to his mother's house and that his mother bandaged her wound. Respondent did not call the police or take Sheltanya to the hospital. Respondent took Sheltanya back to Lillie's house. Respondent went back to Lillie's house the day after he returned Sheltanya, but Lillie and Sheltanya were gone. They had not told him where they were going, and respondent did not have a telephone number where he could reach Sheltanya. Respondent testified that he did not know anyone who knew of Sheltanya' whereabouts. Respondent did not call the police or DCFS.
Respondent testified that he was incarcerated again on November 30, 1992. Respondent was released on August 19, 1993. While incarcerated, respondent did not try to contact the police or anyone else to determine Sheltanya's whereabouts. Respondent testified that when he was released he went back to the house where Lillie used to live, but no one was there.
On January 26, 1994, respondent was convicted for possession of a controlled substance and was sentenced to one year of imprisonment. Respondent was paroled on July 8, 1994. Respondent was convicted of robbery on December 6, 1995, and was released on April 2, 1998. Respondent testified that he did not attempt to locate Sheltanya during the 17 months between the two convictions.
Respondent testified that he called Alan Busch from DCFS several times after his release from prison in 1998, but he did not reach anyone and did not leave a message. Respondent could not recall the dates he made the calls. Respondent testified that he did not send Busch a letter informing him of his release from prison or providing an address where respondent could be reached.
Lillie S. also testified at the fitness hearing. Lillie testified that respondent did not give her child support but "came around" when she lived with respondent and his father. Lillie testified that respondent's father, and not respondent, took care of Sheltanya. Lillie testified that when she moved out of respondent's home, respondent knew where she went and saw Sheltanya as many times as he wanted to. Lillie testified that she never tried to conceal Sheltanya's whereabouts from respondent. Lillie testified that respondent knew the address of Lillie's mother and that Lillie's family always knew of her whereabouts.
Lillie also testified that from the time she left respondent, when Sheltanya was two years old, until DCFS removed Sheltanya, when she was five years old, respondent saw Sheltanya "a lot." Lillie testified that Busch asked her about respondent's whereabouts, but Lillie stated that she did not know. Respondent lived about four blocks from her, but Lillie did not know on which street. Sheltanya went to Lillie's mother's house to visit. Respondent also went to Lillie's mother's house. Lillie testified that while she was incarcerated at Cook County jail, she and respondent had a court date on the same day and rode the bus from the jail together to court. Lillie told respondent that Sheltanya was placed in Lillie's grandmother's custody.
Darryl Applewhite, who was a case manager for Catholic Charities, testified that he was assigned to Sheltanya's case in October of 1993. Applewhite did not know respondent's whereabouts and thus conducted a search. From June 15, 1994, until January of 1995, the search included a public aid search and a telephone directory search. Applewhite testified that at the time he conducted the search, it was not proper practice to contact the Department of Corrections to determine if someone was incarcerated.
A second six-month service plan was created in December of 1994. During this time, Applewhite still did not know respondent's whereabouts and did not perform any further searches. Rather, Applewhite inquired of Sheltanya's foster mother, Sheltanya's maternal great-grandmother, if she knew respondent's whereabouts, but she did not. Applewhite made monthly visits to see Sheltanya. Each time he inquired if respondent had any contact with Sheltanya's foster mother.
Martie Gumm, a DCFS case monitor, testified that he was assigned to the case from May of 1994 to February of 1996. Gumm testified that he reviewed the case file, and it was indicated that respondent's whereabouts were unknown. He performed a search in conjunction with Catholic Charities, which included a public aid screen, a telephone directory search, and following up on respondent's last known address.
Allen Busch, a case worker for Catholic Charities, was assigned to Sheltanya's case in February of 1995. During the first service plan, Busch did not know respondent's whereabouts. Then Busch performed a public aid screen and a telephone book search. In February of 1996, Busch sent out a letter to all Michael Brents listed in the public aid screen and telephone book.
Several weeks later, Busch received a letter from respondent dated February 28, 1996, stating that he was the father of Sheltanya and that he was incarcerated. In the letter, respondent stated that he would not give up any rights to his daughter, except to his new girlfriend. Respondent asked that Sheltanya remain in foster care until he was released from prison in 1998. Busch then prepared a service plan for respondent and task sheets, which he sent to respondent in prison.
Busch testified that, while respondent was incarcerated, he sent service plans to at least three separate facilities. Busch did not receive any requests for visitation with Sheltanya from respondent until respondent was released from prison. Busch did not receive any cards, letters or gifts from respondent for Sheltanya. Respondent did not contact Busch to tell him that he had problems with the services in prison or to inquire what he needed to do to get Sheltanya back.
On cross-examination, Busch testified that he never sent any documentation to respondent in prison offering to set up visitation or informing respondent that he would take cards, gifts, or letters to Sheltanya. Busch did not give respondent Sheltanya's address or telephone number because he wanted to ensure that there would be no problems while Sheltanya was at her foster home. Busch testified that he did not tell respondent how to accomplish the tasks on the task sheets that were sent to him, nor did he check with the prison officials to make sure that the services on the task sheet were available. However, respondent did not ever contact Busch to inform him that he needed help. Busch testified that when he sent respondent the task sheet for December of 1996, he contacted a counselor at the facility where respondent was housed, but he could not recall the counselor's name. Busch further testified that he ...