Appeal from the Circuit Court of St. Clair County. 95-J-378 Honorable James M. Radcliffe, III, Judge, presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Goldenhersh.
The State appeals from an order of the circuit court of St. Clair County denying its petition to terminate the parental rights of Michael Scott Putman (respondent), an inmate in the Illinois Department of Corrections, and to appoint a guardian for the minors M.P., L.P., and C.P. (minors). On appeal, the State contends that the trial court's determination that respondent was not an unfit parent was contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence and the legislative intent of subsection 1(D)(s) of the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(s) (West 1998)). We reverse and remand.
On June 19, 1995, the State filed a petition for adjudication of wardship, alleging that M.P., born on June 14, 1986, L.P., born on May 5, 1988, and C.P., born on December 27, 1989, along with their three half-siblings, were abused and neglected minors. The petition alleged, inter alia, physical and sexual abuse by the mother's paramour. At the time the petition was filed, respondent was an inmate at the Big Muddy Correctional Center. On July 24, 1995, the minors were adjudicated abused and neglected. On October 16, 1995, the mother and her paramour admitted the allegations contained in the petition, and the minors were made wards of the court. Respondent was granted visitation with the minors once each month for a two-hour period. The Department of Children and Family Services (Department) was ordered to arrange visitation between respondent and the minors. The paternal grandfather was later granted monthly visitation with the minors.
On July 29, 1996, a service plan was filed with the court. The plan noted that respondent remained incarcerated and that monthly visitation had occurred between respondent and the minors. It further noted, "[Respondent] has shown an interest in his children by maintaining regular written contact," but it also stated, "[Respondent] has not complied with service plan tasks aimed at addressing his ability to parent the children or in addressing his history of alcohol abuse." A service plan filed on February 19, 1997, mentioned that respondent failed to comply with previous service-plan tasks aimed at addressing respondent's parenting ability and history of alcohol and drug abuse but that respondent maintained written contact and monthly visitation. It also noted that respondent had been transferred to Robinson Correctional Facility.
On July 3, 1997, respondent filed a petition for the custody of the minors. He alleged that, even though he was incarcerated, he would be able to provide for and take care of his children through adult relatives, including the paternal grandfather, who were willing to care for the minors until respondent was released from prison. On August 11, 1997, the guardianship administrator of the Department filed a motion to modify visitation with the minors due to the alleged sexual abuse of the minors by both respondent and the paternal grandfather. On November 24, 1997, the motion to modify visitation was denied, and monthly visitation was ordered to continue.
On February 4, 1998, a case summary was filed, which noted that respondent remained incarcerated in the Centralia Correctional Center and that no documentation had been received regarding respondent's participation in any services, such as parenting classes. The next service plan was filed with the court on June 8, 1998, and noted that respondent needed to deal with his indicated report of sexual abuse by completing a sexual-perpetrator evaluation. The report also noted that respondent was transferred to Stateville Correctional Center (Stateville) in Joliet, requiring the minors to travel 5½ to 6 hours one way in order to visit with respondent.
On November 13, 1998, per the trial court's instructions, a Department caseworker filed a case summary. The caseworker reported that respondent was released from Stateville on July 24, 1998. However, the caseworker also reported that respondent was arrested just three days later, July 27, 1998, for aggravated fleeing of a police officer. The caseworker noted that respondent was awaiting the possible revocation of his parole.
On August 31, 1999, a motion to terminate respondent's parental rights was filed. The State alleged that respondent failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern, or responsibility for the minors and that respondent's repeated incarcerations prevented him from discharging his parental responsibilities. The motion set forth the following five convictions and incarcerations: (1) January 16, 1992-respondent pleaded guilty to the amended charge of theft over $300 (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1991, ch. 38, par. 16-1 (now 720 ILCS 5/16-1 (West 1998))) and was sentenced to two years of probation; (2) July 28, 1992-respondent was convicted of forgery (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1991, ch. 38, par. 17-3(a)(2) (now 720 ILCS 5/17-3(a)(2) (West 1998))) and was sentenced to two years in prison; (3) August 6, 1992-respondent's probation was revoked, and he was sentenced to three years in prison to run concurrently with a previous three-year prison sentence; (4) September 1, 1994-respondent was convicted of unlawful possession of a stolen motor vehicle (625 ILCS 5/4-103(a) (West 1992)) and theft over $300 (720 ILCS 5/16-1(a)(1)(A) (West 1992)) and was sentenced to nine years in prison; and (5) January 28, 1999-respondent was convicted of aggravated fleeing (625 ILCS 5/11-204.1(a)(1) (West 1998)) and was sentenced to 2½ years in prison.
On January 10, 2000, the trial court conducted a hearing on the motion to terminate respondent's parental rights. The State presented one witness, Pamela Fraley, the Department caseworker in charge of the minors' case. Fraley recounted that the minors were under the Department's care since June 1995 and that respondent remained incarcerated virtually the entire time. Respondent was released from prison on July 24, 1998, only to be rearrested on July 27, 1998, on new charges. Respondent did not try to contact the minors during the three-day period that he was out of jail. Fraley testified that respondent was unable to provide for his children while he was incarcerated. She believed that it was time for the minors to have an opportunity for a permanent living situation. Fraley testified that respondent needed to complete a sexual-perpetrator evaluation, parenting classes, and an alcohol evaluation, as well as any treatment necessary to fulfill his service plan.
On cross-examination, Fraley agreed that the Department's original involvement in the case had nothing to do with respondent but was precipitated by sexual-abuse allegations against the mother's paramour. According to Fraley, the paramour signed surrender papers for all his children, and the mother was willing to surrender her rights to the minors in question. While Fraley did not believe that respondent completed any of the tasks required by his service plan, she admitted that she did not check with the prison to find out whether a sexual-abuse evaluation had been completed or whether respondent completed any parenting or alcohol-treatment classes. Fraley further admitted that respondent participated in his monthly visits with the minors, sent numerous letters to the minors, and sent several letters to Fraley inquiring about the minors' welfare; nevertheless, Fraley believed that respondent failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, care, or concern for the minors and had been unable to provide for them due to his incarceration. Fraley pointed out that because respondent was incarcerated, he was unable to provide a home for the minors, was unable to attend to their day-to-day physical needs, and was unable to participate in their education.
Fraley agreed that respondent demonstrated concern for the girls. She noted that if respondent was able to get out of prison and stay out, the Department would get a better idea as to whether or not he could support his children. However, she also noted that while respondent expresses concern for the minors, the Department is concerned about respondent's ability to follow through. She reported that most of the incarcerated parents she supervises do write to their children and show an interest in them. According to Fraley, the minors visit with respondent as regularly as possible, but sometimes the minors do not want to travel the requisite number of hours to visit with respondent.
After Fraley testified, the State submitted certified copies of respondent's five convictions and resulting incarcerations, which we outlined above. The State rested. ...