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People v. Ellis

August 25, 2000

IN RE: R.E. AND R.E., MINORS, THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, PETITIONER-APPELLEE,
v.
RONNIE ELLIS, SR., RESPONDENT, AND CANDIE NIHISER, RESPONDENT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from Circuit Court of Macon County No. 90J259 Honorable Theodore Paine, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Steigmann

In October 1990, the trial court adjudicated R.E. (hereinafter R.E. I) and R.E. (hereinafter R.E. II) (twins born in July 1986), the minor children of respondent, Candie Nihiser, neglected pursuant to section 2-3 of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1989, ch. 37, par. 802-3 (now 705 ILCS 405/2-3 (West 1998))), and placed them in the custody of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

In September 1998, the State filed a petition to terminate respondent's parental rights regarding R.E. I and R.E. II, alleging that respondent was an unfit parent because she (1) had an habitual addiction to drugs (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(k) (West 1998)), (2) failed to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis for the removal of the children, and (3) failed to make reasonable progress toward their return to her within nine months of the adjudication of neglect (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m) (West 1998)). In September 1999, the State withdrew the ground alleged in its first count and the trial court found respondent unfit on the second and third grounds alleged. In October 1999, the court held a hearing on the children's best interests, and in January 2000, the court entered an order terminating respondent's parental rights as to R.E. I and R.E. II.

Respondent appeals, arguing that the trial court's findings regarding parental unfitness and the children's best interests were against the manifest weight of the evidence. We reverse.

I. BACKGROUND

In its August 1990 petition for adjudication of wardship, the State alleged that R.E. I and R.E. II were neglected because respondent did not provide the care necessary for their well-being, including adequate shelter. At the August 1990 shelter-care hearing, the trial court found probable cause to believe R.E. I and R.E. II were neglected and ordered that they be placed in a shelter-care facility. In October 1990, the trial court entered a dispositional order, which adjudicated R.E. I and R.E. II (then each 4 1/2 years old) neglected, made them wards of the court, and appointed DCFS as their guardian with the power to place them. DCFS then placed them in the first of the foster homes they were to live in over the next 9 1/2 years.

In September 1998, the State filed the instant petition to terminate respondent's parental rights. Another year passed before the State's petition came to a hearing. At the September 1999 hearing on the State's petition, Carla Gray, a child protective investigator with DCFS, testified to observations she made while she was respondent's caseworker between February 1996 and October 1997. Pam Cremeans, a child welfare specialist with DCFS, testified that she took over the case in December 1997 and worked with respondent and the twins until February 1999. Nancy Jorgesen, a child welfare specialist with the Baby Fold, testified about respondent's visits with R.E. I. James Leeds, a caseworker for Catholic Social Services, testified that he had been R.E. II's caseworker since 1998 and described his experiences with R.E. II and respondent.

Respondent testified that during the early 1990s she did not understand what DCFS was asking of her. The bulk of her testimony related to her current understanding of the twins' medical, emotional, and behavioral problems, and her attendance at visitations and counseling.

At the close of the hearing, the trial court found that the State had proved by clear and convincing evidence that respondent (1) failed to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis for the removal of the children and (2) failed to make reasonable progress toward the return of the children within nine months after the adjudication of neglect. After a dispositional hearing in October 1999, the court found that it was in the children's best interests that respondent's parental rights be terminated. In January 2000, when the twins were 13 1/2 years old, the court entered an order terminating respondent's parental rights as to them. This appeal followed.

II. ANALYSIS

Section 1(D)(m) of the Adoption Act (Act) provides, in relevant part, as follows:

"The grounds of unfitness are any *** of the following:

(m) 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 9 months after an adjudication of neglected *** minor ***." 750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m) (West 1998).

In In re D.L., 191 Ill. 2d 1, 10, 727 N.E.2d 990, 994 (2000), the Supreme Court of Illinois held that, pursuant to section 1(D)(m) of the Act, the only matters that are relevant to a reasonable progress or reasonable efforts analysis are those that occurred within the applicable period, in this case nine months. In In re D.S., 313 Ill. App. 3d 1020, 1027-28, 730 N.E.2d 637, 643 (2000), this court held that the relevant nine-month ...


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