Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 96 JA 6305 Honorable Cheryl A. Starks, Judge Presiding
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Hall
Respondent S.R. appeals from the trial court's order finding her to be an unfit parent of her son, M.A., terminating her parental rights and authorizing appointment of a guardian with the right to consent to the adoption of M.A. She contends that the finding of unfitness was not proved by a preponderance of the evidence because this determination was made while M.A. was in foster care and because she was making reasonable progress towards M.A.'s return. She also contends that the State failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that it was in M.A.'s best interest to have her parental rights terminated.
When M.A. was born on March 16, 1996, he tested positive for cocaine and opiates. He was taken into custody the following December after S.R.'s sister Wanda reported that S.R. was taking M.A. with her when she worked as a prostitute and that S.R.'s apartment was filthy. Another sister, Iris, who subsequently sought to adopt M.A., took M.A. to the hospital because M.A. had sores all over his body due to impetigo. In December 1996, M.A. was placed in Iris's temporary custody.
Following an adjudicatory hearing on April 1, 1997, the trial court found that M.A. was neglected because of a lack of care, an injurious environment and being born drug-exposed. The court also found that M.A. was abused due to a substantial risk of physical harm. Following the dispositional hearing on May 16, 1997, the court found S.R. unable, unwilling and unfit to care for, protect, train or discipline M.A.
On November 24, 1998, the State filed a petition for appointment of a guardian with the right to consent to M.A.'s adoption. On May 24, 1999, a fitness hearing was held.
S.R. testified for the State, for the public guardian and on her own behalf. S.R. was arrested for home invasion in June 1997, was currently serving a 17-year sentence and anticipated release in 2005. Before M.A. was born, S.R. had felony convictions for theft, possession of a controlled substance, robbery and unlawful restraint. S.R. was not employed after M.A. was born and did not receive public aid.
S.R. admitted using cocaine and heroin the night before M.A. was born but denied drug use at any other time during her pregnancy and denied that she was an addict. But, when asked about the months prior to M.A.'s birth, S.R. testified that she had used drugs every other weekend. She supported M.A. any way she could, including prostitution, and she engaged in other criminal activity because she and M.A. had no place to live. S.R. had not attended drug treatment in prison because it was not offered and she was unable to get any services while imprisoned because of the seriousness of her conviction. She also denied ever meeting with the first two caseworkers who testified and stated that no one offered her any assistance. She gave gifts to M.A. and money to her sister so that her mother could bring M.A. to visit her.
Four of M.A.'s caseworkers also testified at the fitness hearing. The first caseworker testified that she was assigned the case in early 1997, but she was unable to locate either S.R. or M.A.'s father and therefore was unable to offer either drug treatment or parenting classes.
By the time the second caseworker was assigned in May 1997, services had been offered to S.R. The caseworker drafted a service plan which included drug treatment, parenting classes, a psychological evaluation and urine drops. He rated S.R. unsatisfactory as a result of her failure to participate in any of these services. The goal for M.A. was changed in June 1998 to long-term relative care. The caseworker admitted that he never contacted S.R., although he knew she was in Cook County jail as early as July 1997.
A third caseworker testified that she visited S.R. at prison in 1998. S.R. told her that it was impossible to obtain services there but promised to enroll in them if they became available. The caseworker rated S.R. as unsatisfactory for her failure to complete any of the suggested services, which the caseworker learned were in fact available at the prison.
In December 1998 when M.A.'s current caseworker was assigned, S.R. had completed a parenting class but not drug treatment.
In ruling on S.R.'s fitness, the trial court found that the State had failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that S.R. had abandoned M.A. or failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern or responsibility as to M.A.'s welfare. The court also found that S.R. had made reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis for M.A.'s removal. However, the court found S.R. unfit based upon her failure to protect M.A. from conditions in his environment that were injurious to his welfare, specifically that M.A. was living in filthy conditions and born exposed to drugs. The court also found that S.R. had failed to make reasonable progress toward the return of M.A. within nine months after the adjudication of neglect.
The court then conducted a hearing to determine whether it was in M.A.'s best interest to have S.R.'s parental rights terminated. M.A.'s current caseworker testified that M.A. had been placed with S.R.'s sister Iris, who wished to adopt him. The caseworker testified that Iris's home was safe and appropriate, and M.A. was happy and had bonded with his foster parents, whom he called "mom" and "dad." According to a ...