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In re D.L.

March 23, 2000

IN RE D.L., A MINOR (THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, APPELLEE, V. TAWANDA R., APPELLANT).


Agenda 24-September 1999.

JUSTICE MILLER delivered the opinion of the court:

Following an evidentiary hearing in the circuit court of Cook County, the trial judge concluded that the respondent, Tawanda R., was not an unfit parent, and the court therefore denied a petition filed by the State that sought the termination of Tawanda's parental rights with respect to the minor child, D.L. The appellate court reversed, concluding that Tawanda's unfitness had been established, and remanded the cause for further proceedings. 298 Ill. App. 3d 905. We allowed Tawanda's petition for leave to appeal (177 Ill. 2d R. 315(a)), and we now affirm the judgment of the appellate court.

The facts in this case, although lengthy, are not in dispute. Tawanda gave birth to the minor, D.L., on July 8, 1992. This was Tawanda's second child, and toxicology reports showed that D.L., like his older brother, H.L., tested positive for cocaine at birth. D.L. also tested positive for opiates. Tawanda admitted to the attending physician that she had used cocaine while pregnant with D.L. and had used the drug just three weeks before the child's birth.

On September 15, 1992, the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) filed a petition for adjudication of wardship on D.L.'s behalf, alleging that he was neglected because he had been exposed to an injurious environment and because at the time of birth he tested positive for cocaine and opiates. On the same day, DCFS was appointed as temporary custodian of D.L. The child was initially placed with his maternal grandmother, but he was later removed from that home because of additional medical neglect. D.L. was subsequently placed in the home of Ida Palmer, a foster parent, and he has remained in Palmer's care since that time. During the first six weeks that D.L. was with Palmer, she took him to a pediatrician several times because he was suffering from diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration. The condition persisted, and Palmer took D.L. to the hospital on December 16, 1992. Two days later, Family Care Services, a foster agency with which DCFS had contracted to monitor care for D.L. and his brother, H.L., noted that D.L. had symptoms of withdrawal and tremors.

Tawanda did not maintain contact with DCFS from July 1992 to July 1993, and during that time she failed to participate in any drug treatment program, though on several occasions she had promised to do so. On February 9, 1993, the circuit court found that D.L. was neglected because of lack of care, exposure to an injurious environment, and exposure to drugs at birth. On March 23, 1993, D.L. was adjudicated a ward of the court, and DCFS was appointed as D.L.'s guardian. The court found that Tawanda was unable or unwilling to provide for D.L.

Tawanda did not contact Family Care Services from January 1993 through October 1993. In September 1993, the agency attempted to reach Tawanda and left a card and telephone number with Tawanda's grandmother. In November 1993, Tawanda called the agency and asked if she could visit D.L. before entering a drug treatment program. An agency representative explained the steps that Tawanda would need to take to obtain visitation with D.L. and to regain custody of him. Tawanda asked repeatedly to see D.L. that day or the next. An agency representative said that she would schedule a visit and would notify Tawanda of the date and time, once the visit had been arranged. Within 10 days, the agency called to inform Tawanda of the scheduled visit, but Tawanda's mother said that she had not seen Tawanda for a week. Tawanda did not appear for the scheduled visit.

In March 1994, Tawanda again enrolled in a drug treatment program. She was asked to leave the program after only three weeks of treatment, however, because she violated the rules. In May 1994, DCFS rated Tawanda's progress as unsatisfactory because she was uncooperative, did not complete a drug treatment program, and had not visited D.L. during the previous year. After that assessment, Tawanda visited D.L. three times between May 1994 and November 1994. D.L. remained in Ida Palmer's care.

On March 16, 1995, the State filed a supplemental petition for appointment of a guardian with authority to consent to D.L.'s adoption. The petition alleged that D.L.'s parents were unfit, pursuant to section 2-29 of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (705 ILCS 405/2-29 (West 1994)) and section 1 of the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/1 (West 1994)), and alleged five distinct grounds of unfitness. Service on Tawanda was accomplished by publication. On June 6, 1995, Tawanda failed to appear on the scheduled court date. She was found in default, and the case was then set for a hearing on the petition. On September 27, 1995, Tawanda appeared in court, and the circuit judge vacated the earlier default order. Tawanda told the judge that she wanted to regain custody of D.L., and the judge appointed counsel to represent her in the matter. On November 20, 1995, Tawanda entered a drug treatment program. She visited D.L. in December of that year, bringing him several gifts. D.L. commented that he wanted to give several of the gifts to his mother, referring to his foster mother, Ida Palmer. Between December 1995 and April 1996, Tawanda met regularly with D.L. and cooperated with her supervisors, but her supervisors believed that D.L. was not yet ready to be returned to Tawanda.

In August 1996, Larry M. Small, a clinical psychologist, conducted a bonding and attachment assessment regarding Tawanda and D.L. At first, D.L. did not recognize Tawanda and when asked who she was, replied, "Nobody." Small reported that Tawanda showed little regard for D.L.'s emotional state and was not concerned that he might be confused or upset by being told that Tawanda was his mother. Small recommended that Tawanda not have unsupervised visitation with D.L. until she maintained a regular visitation schedule with him. Tawanda next saw D.L. in October 1996. In November or December 1996, Tawanda and her now-husband, Craig, who is not D.L.'s biological father, visited D.L. together. On December 5, 1996, the court denied Tawanda's motion for unsupervised visitation with D.L.

An evidentiary hearing on the petition to terminate parental rights commenced in February 1997 and was completed in June 1997. The parties introduced evidence, as described above, regarding Tawanda's conduct and activities in the time following D.L.'s birth. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial judge ruled that Tawanda was not an unfit parent primarily because she had been drug-free for nearly two years. The judge concluded that the State had failed to prove any of the grounds of unfitness alleged against Tawanda. Separately, the court concluded that D.L.'s biological father was unfit; the propriety of the ruling concerning the father is not at issue here.

Both the guardian and the State appealed from the circuit court's determination that Tawanda was not an unfit parent. The appellate court reversed the circuit court judgment and remanded the cause for further proceedings. 298 Ill. App. 3d 905. The appellate court concluded that the State had established at least three grounds on which Tawanda was an unfit parent. Regarding the allegation of unfitness based on section 1(D)(m) of the Adoption Act, which provides that a parent is unfit if, within 12 months of an adjudication of neglect, abuse, or dependency, the parent fails to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that led to the removal of the child or reasonable progress toward the return of the child, the appellate court found that the circuit judge erred in considering Tawanda's behavior more than 12 months after the adjudication of neglect in this case. The court believed that section 1(D)(m) of the Adoption Act limits the fact finder to a consideration of conduct by the parent during 12 months after an adjudication of neglect, regardless of the date of the subsequent hearing to determine parental fitness. In reaching this result, the appellate court declined to follow decisions from other panels of the appellate court that have allowed a judge considering an allegation of unfitness under section 1(D)(m) to consider the parent's conduct during the entire period of time between the adjudication of neglect, abuse, or dependency and the parental fitness hearing. See, e.g., In re C.R., 221 Ill. App. 3d 373, 381 (1991); In re A.T., 197 Ill. App. 3d 821, 832 (1990); In re R.S., 174 Ill. App. 3d 132, 133-34 (1988). The appellate court remanded the matter so that the circuit court could proceed to the next stage in the action and determine whether termination of Tawanda's parental rights would be in the best interests of D.L. We allowed Tawanda's petition for leave to appeal (177 Ill. 2d R. 315(a)), and we now affirm the judgment of the appellate court.

Section 1(D) of the Adoption Act defines the term "[u]nfit person" and lists a variety of discrete grounds on which a person may be found unfit. Before this court, Tawanda challenges only one of the grounds on which the appellate court determined that she could be found unfit. Tawanda's failure to challenge the other grounds considered by the appellate court renders the present appeal moot. Nonetheless, we choose to decide the case on its merits, under the public interest exception to the mootness doctrine. The interpretation of the statute is of substantial public importance, the relevant appellate court precedents are in conflict, and the issue is one that is likely to recur. See In re A Minor, 127 Ill. 2d 247, 257 (1989).

Relevant here is section 1(D)(m) of the Adoption Act, which provides, as a basis on which a finding of unfitness may rest:

"Failure by a parent to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis for the removal of the child from the parent, or to make reasonable progress toward the return of the child to the parent within 12 months after an adjudication of neglected minor, abused minor or dependent minor under the Juvenile Court Act or the Juvenile Court Act of 1987." 750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m) (West 1994).

The narrow question before us in this appeal concerns the 12-month period specified in the preceding statute. In concluding that Tawanda was not unfit under this provision, the trial judge relied on conduct occurring more than 12 months after the adjudication of neglect. The guardian argues that the appellate court correctly construed the 12-month period contained in section 1(D)(m) as limiting the evidence that may be introduced on that ground to matters occurring within the applicable 12-month span. Opposing the appellate court's determination, Tawanda contends that the time limit prescribed by section 1(D)(m) simply establishes a minimum period of time before a petition alleging that ground may be filed and does not preclude the parties from offering evidence of a parent's actions after the expiration of the 12-month period. The State agrees with Tawanda's interpretation of the statutory language, but the State believes that the appellate court in the present case reached the correct result because the evidence presented in the circuit court, including the testimony relating to Tawanda's activities more than 12 months after the adjudication, established Tawanda's unfitness under this provision.

The cardinal rule of statutory construction is to ascertain and give effect to the intention of the legislature. Nottage v. Jeka, 172 Ill. 2d 386, 392 (1996); Varelis v. Northwestern Memorial Hospital, 167 Ill. 2d 449, 454 (1995). The language of the statute is the best indication of legislative intent, and our inquiry appropriately begins with the words used by the legislature. Business & Professional People for the Public Interest v. Illinois Commerce Comm'n, 146 Ill. 2d 175, 207 (1991). If the statutory language is clear and unambiguous, then there is no need to resort to other aids of construction. Henry v. St. John's Hospital, 138 Ill. 2d 533, 541 (1990); County of Du Page v. Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, Inc., 109 Ill. 2d 143, 151 (1985). Moreover, there is no rule of construction that authorizes a court to say that the legislature did not mean what the plain language of the statute provides. People ex rel. LeGout v. Decker, 146 Ill. 2d 389, 394 (1992). "Where the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, a court must give it effect as written, without `reading into it exceptions, limitations or conditions that the legislature did not express.' " Garza v. Navistar International Transportation Corp., 172 Ill. 2d 373, 378 (1996), quoting Solich v. George & Anna Portes Cancer Protection Center of Chicago, Inc., 158 Ill. 2d 76, 83 (1994).

We agree with the guardian and the appellate court below and conclude that section 1(D)(m) of the Adoption Act limits the evidence that may be considered under the provision to matters concerning the parent's conduct in the 12 months following the applicable adjudication of neglect, abuse, or dependency. The statute plainly states that a parent is unfit if the parent fails to make either reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that led to the child's removal or reasonable progress toward return of the child within 12 months after an adjudication of neglect, abuse, or dependency. Giving effect to the plain language of section 1(D)(m), we conclude that the relevant period of time under this provision, in which the parent's efforts or progress must be assessed and measured, is the 12-month period following the adjudication.

If the legislature had meant merely to provide a minimum period of time before which a petition alleging this particular ground could be filed, as the mother and the State suggest, then the legislature could have simply and explicitly stated that a petition to terminate parental rights on the ground specified in section 1(D)(m) must be filed 12 or more months after the adjudication of wardship, without suggesting any limitation on the period from which the evidence could be drawn. In that way, evidence of efforts made by the parent after passage of the time limit could still be presented.

We note that the legislature has employed a number of different time periods in some of the grounds of unfitness found under section 1(D) of the Adoption Act. See, e.g., 750 ILCS 50/1(D)(c) (West 1994) ("Desertion of the child for more than 3 months next preceding the commencement of the Adoption proceeding"); 750 ILCS 50/1(D)(k) (West 1994) (habitual drunkenness or addiction to drugs "for at least one year immediately prior to the commencement of the unfitness proceeding"); 750 ILCS 50/1(D)(l) (West 1994) ("Failure to demonstrate a reasonable degree of interest, concern or responsibility as to the welfare of a new born child during the first 30 days after its birth"). Other grounds of unfitness contained in section 1(D) specify no applicable time period. The varying presence and absence of time periods in the provisions under section 1(D) demonstrates to us that the legislature believed that, for purposes of establishing certain allegations of unfitness, a parent's conduct during a specified period of time would be relevant. We note also that the legislature amended the Adoption Act in 1994 by adding the following provision:

"It is in the best interests of persons to be adopted that this Act be construed and interpreted so as not to result in extending time limits beyond those set forth herein." 750 ILCS 50/20a (West 1994).

We believe that construing section 1(D)(m) in the manner proposed by Tawanda and the State would be inconsistent ...


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