The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Thomas
Docket No. 92646-Agenda 17-September 2002.
The circuit court of Cook County entered a default judgment on July 7, 1999, terminating the parental rights of respondent, Denise S., to her four minor children, India B., Dell B., and twins Felicia J. and Aiesha J. Respondent did not request a stay of the enforcement of the July 7, 1999, order terminating her parental rights. The circuit court subsequently denied respondent's motion to vacate the default judgment on September 16, 1999. Thereafter, final adoption orders were entered for all four minors. On appeal, the appellate court affirmed the judgment of the circuit court terminating respondent's parental rights. No. 1-99-3433 (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23). We granted respondent's petition for leave to appeal (177 Ill. 2d R. 315), and we now dismiss her appeal as moot in light of our recent decision in In re Tekela, No. 91577 (August 29, 2002), which held that a notice of appeal does not stay enforcement of a parental rights termination order and an adoption order based on the termination order becomes unchallengeable after the passage of one year.
The record reveals that on November 17, 1992, the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) took protective custody of respondent's four children and filed petitions for adjudication of wardship, alleging that the children were neglected and were exposed to an injurious environment pursuant to section 2-3(1) of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1989, ch. 37, par. 802-3(1)). Following an adjudicatory hearing, the trial court found that twins Aiesha and Felicia were neglected and had been exposed to a controlled substance at the time of their births through respondent's drug usage (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1989, ch. 37, par. 802-3(1)(c)). The court further found that India and Dell had been neglected and exposed to an injurious environment by respondent (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1989, ch. 37, par. 802-3(1)(b)). On June 3, 1993, the children were adjudged wards of the court, and DCFS was appointed guardian with the right to place the children. Over the next five years, respondent's progress toward reunification with her children was largely unsatisfactory.
On August 6, 1998, the State filed petitions seeking to terminate respondent's parental rights and to appoint a guardian with the right to consent to the adoption of the children. The petitions alleged, inter alia, that respondent had abandoned the children; had failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern or responsibility for them; and had failed to make reasonable efforts or progress to correct the conditions which caused their removal.
The State's termination petitions were set for a hearing to be held on May 20, 1999. To secure respondent's presence and testimony at the scheduled hearing, both the State and the public guardian served respondent with a notice to appear pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 237(b) (166 Ill. 2d R. 237(b)). The notices warned that respondent would be subject to sanctions under Supreme Court Rule 219(c) (166 Ill. 2d R. 219(c)) if she failed to appear for the hearing.
On May 20, 1999, the hearing was continued by agreement of the parties until July 7, 1999, at 10:30 a.m. The court specifically continued to July 7, 1999, all subpoenas and all notices to appear for the hearing. Respondent and her attorney were present in court on May 20, 1999, and neither of them objected to the continuation of the notices to appear.
On July 7, 1999, respondent failed to appear for the termination hearing. Respondent's public defender told the trial court that he had not had any contact with respondent and had not received any information about her whereabouts. The State and the guardian ad litem informed the court that they were ready for trial, but respondent's counsel stated that he was not ready for trial. The trial court passed the case to allow the public defender to contact respondent. When the case was recalled, respondent was still not present. The public defender stated that he could not reach respondent and that he had not received any messages from her.
The trial court then granted the State's and the guardian ad litem's requests for sanctions pursuant to Rule 219(c) for respondent's failure to appear. In rejecting respondent's counsel's request for imposition of one of the lesser sanctions available under Rule 219(c), the court stated the following:
"The notice was not only prepared, but so that she may be called as a witness by the State and the GAL in their cases, the Public Defender has had no contact from [respondent]. She's left no messages regarding any emergencies, regarding any explanations why she is not here today; the matter was set for trial at 10:30. The notice to appear was for 9:00. The record will reflect that the case was originally called at approximately 10:30; passed. It was recalled at 11:30. It is now 12:10 in the afternoon, [respondent] is still not in court, nor has she left any messages for her attorney requesting a continuance on her behalf or explaining her absence today.
I therefore find that the matter be scheduled for trial, [respondent] having full notice that today was the day for trial, and not being here in court in response to the motion and the notice. The State's and the GAL's requests for sanctions under 219 will be granted. All sanctions requested will be granted. The mother will be barred from presenting any further pleadings. She will be barred from presenting her defense. She will be barred from testifying, and she will be placed in default."
The trial court then required the State and the guardian ad litem to present stipulated evidence of respondent's unfitness. Respondent's counsel made no objection to the evidence stipulated to by the State and the guardian ad litem. The evidence presented showed that respondent was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in November 1992 because she was suicidal and was suffering from major depression. She had had two previous admissions before this time. After leaving the hospital on December 2, 1992, respondent was again admitted to the hospital on December 15, 1992. At that time, she exhibited major depression, poly-substance abuse, and "suicidal and homicidal ideations."
Yvette Harris, a DCFS caseworker, established a service plan for the respondent on November 30, 1992. Harris's social investigation revealed that the respondent had been using cocaine since 1987. The service plan required respondent to complete a drug and alcohol evaluation, sign releases of information, cooperate with recommendations, submit to random urine drops for drug testing, participate in psychological counseling to learn alternative ways of dealing with stress, and participate in weekly visitation.
Respondent was released from the psychiatric hospital on December 31, 1992. On March 30, 1993, a psychological evaluation was performed on respondent, concluding that she was not emotionally or intellectually capable of caring for her children. The evaluation further revealed that respondent had "impulsivity and anger toward others" and "had a borderline psychotic functioning."
After the trial court adjudged respondent's children wards of the court and found that she was unable to parent her children, respondent began a counseling program at Mercy Hospital in July 1993. Her attendance, however, was inconsistent over the next year and a half.
On February 6, 1994, the trial court found that respondent had not made reasonable progress toward the return of her children. Although she was involved in some services, she had not obtained stable housing, had not completed drug treatment, and had not completed counseling to address her mental health issues.
A DCFS case report from September 1995 revealed that the respondent was not in services and was not visiting her children. The DCFS caseworker attempted to contact respondent, but respondent's phone had been disconnected. From August 1995 until November 1996, respondent was allowed to have weekly visits with her children, but during that time, she visited them only once every three or four months.
In May 1996, respondent received an unsatisfactory rating from her caseworker for failing to visit her children, failing to obtain stable housing, and failing to participate in services. At this time, the trial court admonished respondent that if she did not regularly visit her children and complete reunification services, the permanency goal of returning the children to her would be changed.
Respondent failed to appear for a July 1996 urine test, and her urine tests in August and October of 1996 yielded positive results for the presence of controlled substances. In December 1996, respondent admitted to her DCFS caseworker that she had a problem with drugs. As of January 1, 1997, respondent had not enrolled in a drug-treatment plan despite three referrals from her caseworker.
The April 1997 service plan rated defendant's progress as unsatisfactory because she failed to visit her children or engage in services. On May 6, 1997, the court changed the permanency goal to long-term foster care.
In August 1997, respondent completed a bonding assessment with her children. The examiner at the bonding assessment observed that respondent paid little attention to the behavior of the children and made few efforts to redirect them. The examiner concluded that a close bond had not formed between respondent and the children. Case reviews in November 1997, May 1998, and November 1998 continued to rate respondent's progress as unsatisfactory because respondent was not visiting the children regularly and had not completed counseling or drug treatment.
After hearing the stipulated evidence, the trial court found that, based on clear and convincing evidence, respondent was unfit because she failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern, or responsibility as to her children and failed to make reasonable efforts and progress towards the return of ...