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People v. P.O.

February 10, 2000


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Stephenson County. Nos. 94--J--109 94--J--110 Honorable Robin A. Minnis, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Galasso

Respondent, P.O., appeals a judgment terminating her parental rights to her daughter, E.O., and her son, B.O., and giving the guardianship administrator of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) the power to consent to the minors' adoption. (The trial court also terminated the parental rights of the minors' father, Er.O.) The trial court found respondent unfit because (1) she abandoned the children (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(a) (West 1998)); (2) she failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern, or responsibility as to their welfare (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(b) (West 1998)); (3) she did not make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis of the removal of the children (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m) (West 1998)); and (4) she did not make reasonable progress toward the return of the children to her within 12 months of when they were adjudicated dependent (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m) (West 1996)). *fn1 Respondent argues that the finding of unfitness was against the manifest weight of the evidence. We affirm.

We summarize the background to this litigation and the evidence at the hearing on the State's petition. E.O. was born in 1988, and B.O. was born in 1990. In December of 1992, respondent left Er.O. They divorced a year later. In May and June of 1993, respondent was treated for mental illness, resulting in court proceedings over the custody of the children. On July 28, 1993, after E.O. and B.O. had been in temporary shelter care for about 1½ months, the circuit court adjudicated them dependent, returned them to respondent's care, and kept DCFS as their guardian with the discretion to remove them from respondent. In early August of 1993, respondent was admitted to a psychiatric ward in Madison, Wisconsin, and E.O. and B.O. were placed into foster care in De Kalb County. Respondent was hospitalized twice more in 1993 for mental illness. However, on October 2, 1994, the circuit court entered an order finding that respondent was fit to have custody of the children, although DCFS would continue as their guardian with the power to place them.

On March 6, 1998, the State filed its petition to declare both parents unfit and to terminate their rights to the minors. The witnesses at the hearing on the petition included respondent and the DCFS caseworkers who had been assigned to the case since June of 1994. The court also admitted the pertinent DCFS service plans, although these are not in the record on appeal.

Donna Gilbertson of DCFS's Freeport office testified as follows. She worked on the case for most of the period between June of 1994 and October of 1995. When Gilberston took the case, respondent was living with Doug Howard and paying weekly unsupervised visits to E.O. and B.O. In early October of 1994, the children moved in with respondent and Howard. About three weeks later, Howard "kicked out" respondent, E.O., and B.O., who went to live in a motel. On October 28, 1994, over respondent's protests, DCFS took the children and put them back into foster care, where respondent could make supervised visits weekly. Gilbertson explained that DCFS removed E.O. and B.O. because respondent had no permanent home and the possibility that she would try to return to Howard raised concerns for the children's safety.

Gilbertson stated that, between December of 1994 and June of 1995, respondent did make progress toward the return of the children. Respondent was taking her psychiatric medicine, getting counseling, and cooperating with DCFS. However, on June 26, 1995, in a discussion with Gilbertson and the therapists for respondent and her children, respondent walked out angrily, complaining that counselors should just leave her and her children alone. Later that day, Gilbertson went to respondent's home, where the children were visiting. She told respondent that, because of concerns about her counseling, weekly visitation would be changed from unsupervised to supervised. Respondent became upset, called Gilbertson "Satan," and reluctantly allowed Gilbertson to take the children back to their foster home.

Gilbertson recounted that, from June 26 until the case was transferred in October of 1995, respondent did not visit the children, contact Gilbertson at all, or undergo the mental health counseling the service plan required. As a result, in October of 1995, the permanency goal was changed to foster or family placement. At respondent's request, Ed Boettner was assigned to the case.

Boettner testified as follows. Respondent did not visit her children for the rest of 1995. On December 19, 1995, respondent did attend the administrative case review. However, between then and June of 1996, respondent did not always keep Boettner informed of her address and missed two of her four scheduled visits. Respondent missed the case review on June 11, 1996, and Boettner could not give her a copy of the service plan because she had moved without telling him. To Boettner's knowledge, respondent did not participate in any counseling or recommended services during this period. Boettner opined that, between December of 1995 and June of 1996, respondent had made no progress toward the return of her children.

Boettner gave a similarly negative evaluation of respondent's progress between June of 1996 and the next case review on December 18, 1996. During this period, respondent kept only two of her six scheduled visits and made no other discernible progress. On November 27, 1996, shortly after she had been in Singer Mental Heath Center for 2½ months, respondent called Boettner and told him she thought adoption would be in the children's best interests. At the time, respondent was pregnant and had been off her medicine.

Sometime in 1996, respondent began a relationship with Andre Valenti. In August of 1996, respondent told Boettner that Valenti had beaten her, but, in April of 1997, she told Boettner that she had had a baby and that she and Valenti were going to Florida. She also told Boettner that she was unable to care for E.O. and B.O. and would like them to be adopted. Respondent missed the case review in May of 1997. Between May and October of 1997, she did not visit E.O. and B.O. While respondent was in Florida, she kept Boettner informed of her address and sent four or five cards or letters that he forwarded to E.O. and B.O. As with the two prior service plan periods, Boettner believed that, between May of 1997 and October of 1997, when the case was transferred, respondent made no progress toward the return of E.O. and B.O.

Jennifer Zaluckyj of DCFS's Rockford office had the case from late October of 1997 to January 15, 1998. She testified as follows. When she accepted the case, E.O. and B.O. were in foster care in Rockford. Respondent was in Florida but had left no address. However, late in October, respondent sent a letter to be forwarded to E.O. and B.O. In November of 1997, respondent's mother told Zaluckyj that respondent was in a psychiatric hospital in Florida.

Respondent did not attend the administrative case review in December of 1997, and her contact with Zaluckyj consisted of two phone calls. On December 9, 1997, respondent called Zaluckyj and asked how her children were doing. Respondent said she was living in a hotel with Valenti, was pregnant again, and wanted to put her three children up for adoption. Respondent gave Zaluckyj no address and told her not to send any information to respondent's mother's address. Respondent called again on January 7, 1998, and told Zaluckyj she had just arrived in Freeport. On January 15, 1998, the case was assigned to Michael LeBlanc in DCFS's Freeport office. Zaluckyj believed that, between October of 1997 and January of 1998, respondent made no progress toward the return of E.O. and B.O.

Michael LeBlanc testified as follows. Late in December of 1997 or in early January of 1998, respondent called the office, said she was back in Stephenson County, and requested visits with her children. On January 29, 1998, LeBlanc met with respondent. She was living alone. They set up a visit for February 27, 1998. Respondent and LeBlanc talked by phone a few times, and the visit went as planned. Later, respondent called and asked when the next visit would be. None was set up before March 6, 1998, when the State filed its petition.

Called as an adverse witness, respondent testified as follows. She suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and had known this since 1993 or 1994. In 1993 or 1994, Singer Mental Health Center prescribed pills for her condition, but, when respondent moved in with Doug Howard, she stopped taking her medicine. While she lived with Howard in the summer of 1994, she was seeing E.O. and B.O. and spent more time with them than the foster parents did. However, on or about October 4, 1994, Howard got drunk and "beat [her] up." Respondent left, taking the children to live with her in a motel. On October 23, 1994, respondent tried to get back into Howard's residence, but he had changed the locks. Respondent petitioned for an order of protection, alleging that Howard had been there when she ...

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