Appeal from Circuit Court of McLean County No. 98AD4 Honorable James E. Souk, Judge Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Cook
Bonnie G. and Dean G. appeal an order denying their petition to adopt their granddaughter, C.D. They allege numerous errors committed by the circuit court in an attempt to overturn an order finding that it was in C.D.'s best interests to be adopted by her foster parents, Phillip P. and Melissa P. We affirm the circuit court's judgment.
Tina D. gave birth to C.D. on January 29, 1993, in McLean County, Illinois. Tina D. subjected C.D. to physical abuse and allegations were made that Scott D., Tina D.'s brother, sexually abused C.D. In October 1996, the McLean County juvenile court found C.D. to be an abused child and placed her in the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). On April 10, 1997, the trial judge made C.D. a ward of the court.
C.D. was placed in foster care with Marie Y. DCFS developed a service plan to assist and counsel Tina D. so that she and C.D. could ultimately be reunited. A DCFS caseworker contacted Bonnie G., Tina D.'s mother, to determine if she would be willing to provide a temporary home for C.D. Bonnie agreed to take C.D. into her home. C.D. was accustomed to spending time with Bonnie, having lived with her during the summer of 1994, and enjoying other extended visits in 1995 and 1996. Bonnie participated in a home study that concluded she was a suitable placement for C.D. However, DCFS chose not to place C.D. with her grandmother because Bonnie and Dean lived in the State of Virginia. Moving C.D. to Virginia would prevent visitation with Tina D. and impair DCFS' goal of reuniting C.D. and her mother.
C.D. remained in foster care with Marie Y. for approximately eight months. Marie Y. was experiencing personal problems unrelated to C.D., so on June 8, 1997, C.D. was moved to Melissa and Phillip P.'s foster home (foster parents).
Through counseling and other assistance, Tina D. made progress toward achieving custody of C.D. However, without discussion or notification to DCFS, Tina D. executed a final and irrevocable consent to adoption on January 15, 1998, purporting to consent to Bonnie's adoption of C.D. Robin Cashen, DCFS court monitor, testified that at the time Tina D. signed the consent she "had basically completed her client service plan, and it was a matter of working [C.D.] back into the [Tina D.'s] home."
On January 22, 1998, Bonnie filed her petition to adopt a related child. Later, the petition was amended to join Bonnie's husband, Dean, as a party to the petition (Bonnie and Dean collectively referred to as "grandparents"). When DCFS was notified of the consent and grandparents' petition in late February 1998, it requested an adoptive home study of the grandparents through the Interstate Compact on Placement of Children Act (Act) (45 ILCS 15/0.01 et seq. (West 1998)). In March 1998, caseworkers from Catholic Social Services (CSS) and the Children's Advocacy Center of McLean County (court-appointed special advocate (CASA) program) recommended placing C.D. with the grandparents. At a hearing on April 14, 1998, the foster parents attended and informed the circuit court that they would adopt C.D. if the grandparents' petition for adoption did not go through for some reason.
By the end of August 1998, the adoptive home study had not yet been completed by the State of Virginia because Bonnie and Dean were living together and were unmarried. Dean had not yet divorced his third wife, and the State of Virginia would not complete the home study because of the living arrangement.
As the months passed, the foster parents became more assertive with their interest in adopting C.D. On August 31, 1998, the foster parents filed their petition to intervene and petition for adoption in the grandparents' adoption proceeding. The foster parents alleged that their petition was entitled to the "foster-parent preference" and should be given first consideration pursuant to sections 15.1(a) and (b) of the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/15.1(a), (b) (West 1998)). The sections give foster parents who have had custody for more than one year a preference in the adoption proceeding.
At a hearing in September 1998, the circuit court found that both petitions to adopt were premature because the parental rights of C.D.'s parents had not yet been terminated. The court allowed the petitions to remain on file and continued them generally. The parental rights of C.D.'s birth father were terminated on September 29, 1998. On October 20, 1998, the State moved to terminate Tina D.'s parental rights because she "failed to make reasonable progress toward the return of [C.D.]." The motion also requested that the court appoint DCFS guardian "with the power to consent to [C.D.'s] adoption." The State filed a supplemental petition for adjudication of wardship on December 22, 1998, stating that Tina D. wished to be relieved of her parental duties. Tina D. agreed to the appointment of DCFS as guardian, but did not agree to DCFS being given power to consent to adoption until the court heard evidence from the grandparents and foster parents relating to their competing petitions to adopt C.D.
At the hearing on December 22, 1998, the court admonished Tina D. that she was relinquishing her parental rights and that the court alone would determine C.D.'s best interests based on the competing petitions to adopt. The court specifically informed Tina D. that it may not find that placement with the grandparents was in C.D.'s best interests. After extensive explanation and discussion with Tina D., the circuit court accepted her waiver of parental rights. Tina D.'s parental rights were terminated by court order. The court also ordered an investigation report of the grandparents and the foster parents pursuant to section 6 of the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/6 (West 1998)) and set the matter for hearing.
The circuit court held four days of hearings to determine which family would provide the best adoptive home for C.D. The court heard testimony from each of the prospective adoptive parents. Additionally, numerous caseworkers and counselors testified at trial. The caseworkers and counselors overwhelmingly agreed that while the grandparents were an acceptable placement for C.D., it would be in C.D.'s best interest to be adopted by the foster parents.
DCFS caseworker Susan Allison suggested placement with the foster parents because of her concern that any exposure to Scott D., who was accused of sexually abusing C.D., would be harmful.
Robin Cashen initially testified that she believed Bonnie would be a "good placement" for C.D. Cashen went on to state, however, that she believed it would be in C.D.'s best interest to be adopted by the foster parents because:
"She has been there since June of 1997. From the reports that I have read, she is very bonded to [the foster parents] as mom and dad. She is bonded to the other children in the home. She has been in the home consistently and knows these people as her family, and
[their] extended family as her family." Chris Newman, a CSS caseworker, testified that when she first became aware of the direct consent signed by Tina D., she believed that C.D.'s placement with Bonnie would be in her best interest. By August 1998, however, her opinion had changed and she favored C.D. staying with the foster parents. She changed her mind because of the delay in obtaining a home study from Virginia, C.D.'s limited contact with Bonnie and Dean, and the fact that C.D. had developed a stronger bond with the foster parents.
Jennifer Aranda, a clinical professional counselor, testified that it was in C.D.'s best interest to stay with the foster parents. However, she had no opinion regarding the grandparents' ability to care for C.D. because she had never spoken to them or observed them with C.D. Aranda expressed concern that any move would create a risk to C.D. because C.D. needed security and structure. She feared that further moves would increase the risk of C.D. "acting out."
Carolyn Walker, a CASA caseworker, understood that C.D. was not placed with her grandparents originally because of the delays related to the home studies. Despite the delays, Walker believed that adoption by the grandparents was in C.D.'s best interests.
Steve Bryan, a DCFS adoption specialist, reviewed the interstate home studies of the grandparents, met with the foster parents, met with C.D. six or seven times, and consulted C.D.'s teacher and counselor. His opinion was based on his observations, his opinions, the Adoption Act, and DCFS' rules and procedures. Bryan stated that he felt that both couples were appropriate to adopt C.D. and that both had a positive relationship with C.D. Bryan testified that C.D. recognizes the foster parents as mom and dad and the foster parents' daughter as her sister. He felt it was important to preserve these family ties for C.D.'s stability and best interest. He recommended that C.D. maintain her current ties with her school, her counselor, and her friends. He ultimately recommended that C.D. stay with the foster parents.
The grandparents' first argument on appeal is that the circuit court's order granting the foster parents' adoption petition was not in C.D.'s best interests.
A. The Trial Court's Decision Granting the Foster Parents' Petition for Adoption was Within Its Discretion and Not Against the Manifest Weight of the Evidence
The Adoption Act specifies that the "best interests and welfare of the person to be adopted shall be of paramount consideration in the construction and interpretation of this Act." 750 ILCS 50/20a (West 1998). After hearing extensive evidence from the grandparents and the foster parents in support of their respective adoption petitions, the court determined that it was in C.D.'s best interests to grant the foster parents' petition. On appeal, we will not overturn an adoption judgment involving the best interest of a child unless the circuit court clearly abused its discretion and the judgment was against the manifest weight of the evidence. In re Adoption of Scheidt, 89 Ill. App. 3d 92, 99, 411 N.E.2d 554, 560 (1980).
The grandparents make numerous factual arguments as to why the circuit court's decision was in error. These arguments can essentially be reduced to two: (1) they are C.D.'s blood relatives and currently have custody of A.D., C.D.'s younger half-brother, and (2) they are financially more stable than the foster parents. The grandparents argue that these factors establish that it is in C.D.'s best interests to be placed with them and not the foster parents. The circuit court was required to consider several statutory factors in reaching its decision in this case. Section 15.1(c) of the Adoption Act states that "the ...