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In re Marriage of Stopher

April 10, 2002

IN RE: THE MARRIAGE OF DARRIN LANE STOPHER, PETITIONER-APPELLANT, AND STACY STOPHER, N/K/A STACY HARDWICK, RESPONDENT-APPELLEE.


Appeal from Circuit Court of Champaign County No. 99D518 Honorable Harry E. Clem, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Myerscough

Released for publication April 12, 2002.

IN RE: THE MARRIAGE OF DARRIN LANE STOPHER, PETITIONER-APPELLANT, AND STACY STOPHER, N/K/A STACY HARDWICK, RESPONDENT-APPELLEE.

Appeal from Circuit Court of Champaign County No. 99D518 Honorable Harry E. Clem, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Myerscough

PUBLISHED

 Petitioner, Darrin Lane Stopher, and respondent, Stacy Stopher, now known as Stacy Hardwick, were married in 1998. Stacy is developmentally disabled and functions at the level of an eight-year-old child. The parties have one minor child, Bradley. The Champaign County circuit court dissolved the parties' marriage in May 2000, granted temporary custody of the child to Stacy, and reserved the other issues, including permanent custody. In August 2001, the trial court granted permanent custody to Stacy. Darrin appeals, arguing the trial court's decision to grant permanent custody of the child to Stacy was an abuse of discretion. We affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

The parties met in February 1997 and began dating. Stacy Hardwick was then 20 years old. Her intelligence quotient (I.Q.) is 67, which places her in the tenth percentile in terms of overall cognitive and intellectual functioning. She reads at a second-grade level and is able to do arithmetic at a fourth-grade level. Perceptual skills are her strongest area of intellectual skill. Despite her limitations, Stacy is able to drive a car and hold a janitorial job. Darrin Stopher is nine years Stacy's senior and of above-average intelligence.

Stacy gave birth to a son, Bradley Clark Stopher, on February 17, 1998. The parties were married on June 1, 1998. After Bradley's birth and prior to the parties' marriage, the parties lived apart from each other. Stacy and Bradley lived with Stacy's mother, Nadine Hardwick, who helped Stacy care for the baby. After the parties married, Darrin moved in with Stacy, Bradley, and Nadine.

During the parties' marriage, Stacy was the primary caregiver for Bradley. Although both Stacy and Darrin worked outside the home, Darrin worked long hours and unpredictable shifts as a security guard.

Due to Stacy's disability, she cared for her son with intervention from several public agencies. In view of concern over her cognitive limitations, hospital personnel notified the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) when Bradley was born. Richard Schmidt, the child-welfare specialist at DCFS who oversaw Stacy's case, referred her to the Children's Foundation, which provided Stacy with a home interventionist to teach her parenting skills and to act as an "advocate" for Stacy, driving her to medical appointments and making sure she had everything she needed for herself and the baby. In addition, due to her low income, Stacy qualified for the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program (WIC). Services provided to her through the WIC program included nutritional counseling, family case management, food vouchers, and immunizations for Bradley. The family case-management component consisted of education in parenting skills. Significantly, Jami Schenkel and Tami Leigh, who provided parenting education to Stacy through WIC and the Children's Foundation, respectively, each testified that Stacy was able to learn and retain all the parenting skills they taught her.

Stacy has had substantial support in caring for her son from her mother and three older sisters. When Bradley was born, her mother, at the request of DCFS, moved into the trailer Stacy had lived in alone prior to that time. (Although she moved out of the trailer in May 2000, she continued to see Bradley and Stacy on a daily basis and has since moved back in with Stacy and Bradley.)

The parties separated in June 1999. Bradley continued to live with Stacy, who cared for him with assistance from her mother, sisters, and caseworkers. Darrin filed a petition for dissolution in August 1999, which the trial court granted at a May 2, 2000, hearing. On August 4, 2000, the trial court entered a written dissolution judgment. The trial court granted temporary custody of Bradley to Stacy and reserved issues of permanent custody, child support, and property division.

In December 2000, the trial court granted Darrin's motion for a custody evaluation pursuant to section 604.5(a) of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (750 ILCS 5/604.5(a) (West 2000)). Dr. Elizabeth Scott, a marriage and family therapist appointed by the court, interviewed both parties and observed their interactions with Bradley in their respective homes. She also referred the parties to a clinical psychologist for psychological testing. On the basis of these tests and observations, Dr. Scott concluded that Stacy has no emotional problems. Darrin, on the other hand, has perfectionist compulsive tendencies and has deep feelings of resentment due to abandonment by both his biological and adoptive fathers when he was a child. Dr. Scott noted that both parties share a close bond with Bradley and that both spend a lot of time interacting with him. She described Stacy as "a warm, loving[,] and attentive parent to Bradley with the capacity to respond to his needs in a relaxed, easygoing manner." She noted that while Darrin is aware of Bradley's likes and dislikes and devotes a great deal of time to one-on-one interaction with the child, he has a tendency to project his own personality onto Bradley. Further, he has a tendency to overstimulate Bradley. For example, he placed enough snacks on Bradley's play table to feed 20 children.

In her report, Dr. Scott addressed Stacy's ability to adequately care for Bradley, including her ability to keep him safe from harm, her ability to see that he is well-nourished, and her ability to help him in his intellectual development as he grows. Dr. Scott stated that Stacy is keenly aware of potential dangers to a small child and acts appropriately to protect Bradley from any such dangers even though she does not always understand why something is dangerous to him. She expressed some concern, however, about Stacy's ability to protect Bradley from harm if confronted with an unfamiliar situation. Dr. Scott noted that Darrin and his family had expressed concern over Bradley's nutrition due to the fact that both his height and weight fell below the fifth percentile for his age, but she stated that his pediatrician and nurse-caseworker from WIC both attributed this to genetics rather than malnutrition. She predicted that, due to Stacy's cognitive limitations, she would be unable to meet Bradley's developmental needs as he grew older. Emphasizing this last factor, she recommended that Darrin be given full legal custody of Bradley.

On June 14, 2001, and July 10, 2001, the trial court heard extensive testimony regarding permanent custody and the other reserved issues. Much of the testimony centered on Stacy's ability to adequately care for Bradley. On August 23, 2001, the trial court entered its final order. After considering all relevant statutory factors (see 750 ILCS 5/602 (West 2000)), the trial court found that it was in Bradley's best interests to remain in the custody of his mother, Stacy Hardwick. The order did ...


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