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In Re N.B.

May 18, 2000

IN RE N.B. (THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, APPELLEE, V. CA. R., APPELLANT).-IN RE C.R. (THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, APPELLEE, V. CA. R., APPELLANT).


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice McMORROW

Agenda 9-March 2000.

The State of Illinois petitioned the circuit court of Du Page County to make N.B. and C.R., the minor children of respondent Ca. R. (respondent), wards of the court. The State alleged that the minors were neglected, as that term is defined by the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (705 ILCS 405/1-1 et seq. (West 1998)), because they were subjected to an "environment *** injurious to [their] welfare." 705 ILCS 405/2-3(1)(b) (West 1998). Following an evidentiary hearing, the circuit court found that the children were neglected. 705 ILCS 405/2-18 (West 1998). At a subsequent hearing, the court ruled that the children should be made wards of the court. 705 ILCS 405/2-21 (West 1998). Respondent appealed from the findings of neglect. The appellate court affirmed with one justice dissenting. Nos. 2-98-0653, 2-98-0656 cons. (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23). The appeal is before this court pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 315 (177 Ill. 2d R. 315). We reverse.

BACKGROUND

On April 17, 1997, the State of Illinois filed separate, original neglect petitions in the circuit court of Du Page County, on behalf of minors C.R. and N.B. At the time the petitions were filed, C.R. and N.B. were ages four years and three months, respectively. The petitions named S.B. and respondent as the parents of N.B., and R.R. and respondent as the parents of C.R. The State asserted that N.B. and C.R. were "neglected minors," as defined in the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (705 ILCS 405/2-3(1)(b) (West 1998)), in that they were under the age of 18 years and that their "environment is injurious to [their] welfare." The petitions stated that it was in the best interest of N.B. and C.R. and of the public that N.B. and C.R. be made wards of the court.

On February 3 and March 13, 1998, the court conducted an evidentiary hearing on the State's petitions. The State introduced evidence regarding the incidents that prompted the petitions for a finding of neglect. Witnesses testifying on the State's behalf averred that, while at a Du Page County health department (health department) facility on April 7, 1997, respondent became enraged when she was informed that the coupons she wished to redeem for milk for her children could only be redeemed for powdered milk, and were not redeemable for liquid milk. Health department regulations precluded giving liquid milk to anyone, like respondent, who lacked a permanent address. One witness described respondent's behavior as a "tantrum" and stated that, during her confrontations with health department employees, respondent threw her milk coupons, jacket and diaper bag into some chairs in the room where the outburst occurred. According to the witnesses, respondent thereafter decided to leave. She picked up the handheld baby carrier, containing N.B., that was at respondent's feet, and as she picked up the baby carrier, respondent's arm swung far from her body so that the baby carrier hit a wall. The witnesses maintained that respondent did not check to see if N.B. was harmed.

The State adduced additional evidence that, one week later, respondent and N.B. returned to the health department facility for an examination. The examination room contained a camera. Respondent refused to enter the exam room until the camera was covered. A social service caseworker also testified that she had weekly contact with respondent between December 1995 and June 1996. In that time period, the caseworker testified, she saw no signs of child abuse and that respondent satisfied the requirements set for her by state social services. Respondent presented no evidence on her own behalf. The circuit court found that the State proved the existence of an injurious environment to the minors and, at a subsequent dispositional hearing, ordered that the children be made wards of the court. Respondent appealed.

The appellate court consolidated the appeals from the separate findings of neglect as to C.R. and N.B. The appellate court affirmed the finding of neglect. Nos. 2-98-0653, 2-98-0656 (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23). A majority of the appellate panel held that the trial court's finding of neglect arising from an "injurious environment" was not against the manifest weight of the evidence. The majority also held that the circuit court applied the correct standard in determining whether the State met its burden of proof at the neglect hearing. The dissenting justice disagreed that the evidence supported a finding of neglect. According to the dissent, respondent only directed her anger toward "bureaucratic functionaries." The dissent maintained that an isolated display of anger by respondent, during which the children were unharmed, did not justify stripping respondent of the custody of her children.

We granted respondent's petition for leave to appeal pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 315 (177 Ill. 2d R. 315).

ANALYSIS

The finding of neglect entered by the circuit court in this case was just one step in a multistep process that determines whether children should be removed from their parent or parents and become wards of the court. The process is prescribed by the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (705 ILCS 405/1-1 et seq. (West 1998)). A finding of abuse, neglect or dependence is a necessary predicate to an adjudication of wardship of a child. 705 ILCS 405/2-21 (West 1998); In re K.G., 288 Ill. App. 3d 728, 735 (1997). The State bears the burden of proving neglect, dependence or abuse by a preponderance of the evidence, meaning proof that makes the condition more probable than not. In re K.G., 288 Ill. App. 3d at 735; In re B.C., 262 Ill. App. 3d 906, 909 (1994); In re C.C., 224 Ill. App. 3d 207, 215 (1991).

If the State fails to prove the allegations of abuse, neglect or dependence by a preponderance of the evidence, the court must dismiss the petition. 705 ILCS 405/2-21(1) (West 1998); see also In re M.B., 235 Ill. App. 3d 352, 377 (1992), quoting In re Shawn B., 218 Ill. App. 3d 374, 380 (1991) (a finding of abuse, neglect or dependence is jurisdictional, "without [which] the trial court lacks jurisdiction to proceed to an adjudication of wardship"). If the State meets its burden, the court must proceed to a second adjudicatory stage, in which the court determines whether "it is consistent with the health, safety and best interests of the minor and the public that he be made a ward of the court." 705 ILCS 405/2-21(2) (West 1998). In any proceeding initiated pursuant to the Juvenile Court Act of 1987, including an adjudication of wardship, the "paramount consideration" is the best interest of the child. In re K.G., 288 Ill. App. 3d at 734-35; see In re A.P., 179 Ill. 2d 184, 197 (1997); In re Stilley, 66 Ill. 2d 515, 520-21 (1977); In re Z.R., 274 Ill. App. 3d 422, 428 (1995); In re D.M., 258 Ill. App. 3d 669, 672 (1994).

I. Whether the Circuit Court Employed an Incorrect Standard to Determine if the State Satisfied Its Burden of Proof

Respondent argues that the circuit court failed to hold the State to the correct burden of proof when the court ruled that C.R. and N.B. had been neglected by their mother. Respondent maintains that the circuit court grounded its ruling on what was in the "best interests" of the children, rather than deciding whether the State proved its case by a preponderance of the evidence. For this reason, respondent requests that this court reverse the circuit court's adjudication of neglect.

At the conclusion of the hearing on March 13, 1998, the circuit court recited in detail the basis for its ruling. During the course of its oral remarks, the court stated: "Now ultimately, the finding that I must make must be in the child's best interest, and this is what the ultimate burden of standard is." Later, the court stated: "Based on the evidence, I'm making an adjudication at this time. The first question in the hearing, whether or not the petition has been sustained by the evidence, my conclusion for the reasons I have indicated, the court's observations, the K.G. [288 Ill. App. 3d 728] case, every case must be determined on its own facts. The evidence does support that finding."

We do not agree with respondent that the circuit court's passing reference to the "best interests" of the minors indicates that the court applied an erroneous standard. As an initial matter, the court referred to the best interest consideration as "the ultimate burden of standard." This phrase is nonsensical, so we cannot be precisely sure what the circuit court meant by this. However, the record on appeal reveals that throughout the proceedings, the circuit court understood the several steps involved in the adjudication of wardship, and the principles of law to be applied at each stage. For example, in making its finding of neglect, the circuit court indicated its awareness that another step remained in the wardship proceedings by stating, "Now the next step of the proceedings will be to schedule a dispositional hearing." The court's reference to the best interests of the minors may simply be an acknowledgment by the court that, should the proceedings reach the adjudication of wardship stage, it would have to determine the best interests of the minors. 705 ILCS 405/2-21(2) (West 1998).

The totality of the circuit court's remarks illustrates that the court ruled in the State's favor only after the court found that the State proved the allegations of neglect asserted in the State's petition. Although the court failed to expressly note that it was applying a preponderance of the evidence standard, such a statement is not necessary. People v. Hoots, 228 Ill. App. 3d 42, 53 (1992). The circuit court is presumed to know the law and apply it properly, absent an affirmative showing to the contrary in the record. People v. Kluxdal, 225 Ill. App. 3d 217, 223 (1991). Our review of the circuit court's findings leads us to conclude that the court understood the State's burden to prove the allegations of neglect by a preponderance of the evidence, and ...


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