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In re M.J.

July 07, 2000


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Winnebago County. Nos. 97--JA--280 97--JA--281 Honorable Janet Clark Holmgren, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Rapp

Respondent, K.J., appeals from orders terminating her parental rights to her two children, M.J. and A.J. The presumed and putative fathers of the children are not parties to this appeal, having previously surrendered their parental rights. Respondent argues that (1) the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the termination proceedings due to flaws in the underlying neglect proceedings; and (2) the trial court's findings of parental unfitness were against the manifest weight of the evidence. We affirm.


In December 1997, the State filed separate petitions to adjudicate M.J. and A.J. neglected minors. Both petitions alleged, among other things, that the children were neglected because their environments were injurious to their welfare in that respondent had untreated mental health issues that placed her children at a risk of harm. An adjudicatory hearing was held in June 1998. Though respondent did not appear at the hearing, respondent's counsel was present and conducted cross-examination of the State's witnesses. After the hearing, the trial court entered orders adjudicating both children neglected minors pursuant to section 2--3(1) of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (705 ILCS 405/2--3(1) (West Supp. 1997)). A dispositional hearing was held on July 1, 1998. Respondent failed to appear although she was notified earlier in open court of the date and time of the hearing.

At the dispositional hearing, the trial court ordered respondent, in absentia, to cooperate with the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), to follow through with recommended mental health counseling, and to refrain from threatening DCFS personnel during visits with the children. Visitation between respondent and the children was to be at the discretion of DCFS. The trial court then made the children wards of the court and appointed DCFS legal guardian and custodian of the minors. No appeal was taken from the dispositional order.

Late in January 1999, the State separately petitioned to terminate respondent's parental rights as to both children. The petitions alleged that respondent was an unfit parent because (1) she failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern, or responsibility as to the children's welfare (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(b) (West 1998)); (2) she continuously or repeatedly neglected the children (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(d) (West 1998)); and (3) she failed to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis for the removal of the children or to make reasonable progress toward the return of the children within nine months after the adjudication of neglect (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m) (West 1998)). An "unfitness" hearing was conducted in June 1999 at which respondent was present and the following evidence was presented.

Linda Mase, a DCFS supervisor with a master's degree in clinical psychology, was respondent's caseworker from December 1997 through October 1998. She had previously been employed as a mental health specialist and crisis counselor. Mase testified that after respondent was arrested for disorderly conduct in December 1997, A.J. and M.J. were taken into protective custody. M.J. was placed in foster care and A.J. was initially placed with his natural father and then later placed with another relative. At the time of the hearing, M.J. was 3 years old and A.J. was 12 years old. According to Mase, at the time respondent was arrested she was living with the children in a homeless shelter. Yet Mase noted that the children appeared clean and well fed. Mase testified that she met with respondent in the Winnebago County jail to discuss services that might be needed in order to return the children home. According to Mase, respondent's thought process was difficult to follow. Respondent failed to stay focused on the conversation and jumped from one subject to the next.

As a result of the discussion, Mase recommended that respondent have a mental health assessment, to which respondent agreed. Mase prepared a written service plan with the goal to eventually return the children to respondent. The service plan provided for weekly supervised visitation and, in addition to obtaining the mental health assessment, recommended a drug and alcohol assessment because respondent admitted to prior drug use and tested positive for cocaine. The service plan additionally required that respondent follow all court orders, attend court dates, visit the children according to the visitation schedule, and locate suitable housing. Finally, the service plan required respondent to complete any services recommended pursuant to the mental health and drug and alcohol assessments. Mase's testimony, for the most part, was identical to that offered at the adjudicatory hearing.

According to Mase, respondent initially cooperated with the service plan. Respondent located suitable housing and attended all scheduled visitations. Respondent also obtained a mental health assessment. However, after only a few weeks, respondent stopped attending therapy and stopped taking her prescribed medication. Respondent never returned to therapy and never obtained a drug and alcohol assessment.

Mase testified that the case was subsequently transferred to Lutheran Social Services and the permanency goal was changed from returning the children home to "substitute care pending court decision." Mase testified that the goal was changed because respondent was making very little progress toward the goal of returning the children home.

Specifically, Mase cited respondent's failure to follow through with the alcohol and drug assessment and her failure to follow through with her mental health therapy. Mase also noted that respondent was generally combative every time she had contact with DCFS or another agency. Julie Melan, a child welfare specialist with Lutheran Social Services, testified that she had been respondent's caseworker from October 1998 through the time of the termination hearing. At the time Melan took over the case from DCFS, the goal was substitute care pending the termination of parental rights. According to Melan, at the time of the termination hearing respondent did not have a permanent address.

Respondent told Melan that she could be reached at the Rescue Mission. Melan never formally discussed the objectives and goals set out in the service plans with respondent but respondent was given copies of each service plan. According to Melan, respondent was aware of the requirements set out in the service plan but had failed to follow through on any of them except visitation with the children. Melan further testified that she was concerned that the children's safety would be jeopardized if they were returned to respondent. Melan based her opinion on respondent's history of unstable relationships with men. Melan also noted that respondent said she heard voices and heard her baby cry out at night even though the baby was not living with her. Respondent also told Melan that a coffee table was possessed with the soul of her dead baby. Melan further noted that respondent did not have stable employment. According to Melan, the only services respondent participated in were the visitations with her children. Respondent never addressed her mental health and drug and alcohol problems with Melan while she was her caseworker.

After closing arguments, the trial court found that the State had presented clear and convincing evidence that respondent was an unfit parent. The trial court found that respondent failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern, or responsibility regarding the children's welfare in that she did not resolve her mental health and drug and alcohol issues and she failed to make reasonable progress or reasonable efforts toward the return of the children within nine months of the dispositional order. However, the trial court further found that the State failed to prove that the children were continuously or repeatedly neglected. The trial court determined after a best interest hearing that the termination of respondent's parental ...

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