Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. Honorable James M. Obbish, Judge Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Hartman
Following a hearing, the circuit court found respondent, Erica M., to be an unfit parent and terminated the parental rights to her children, Deshante M. (born December 23, 1992) and Dreonte M. (born June 20, 1996). *fn1 The court also held that it would be in the children's best interest that a guardian with the right to consent to their adoption be appointed. Respondent appeals, contending that termination of her parental rights was not in the children's best interest in light of the related foster mother's unwillingness to adopt the children.
The issue presented for review is whether the circuit court's termination of respondent's parental rights was against the manifest weight of the evidence.
On October 29, 1998, the State filed petitions for adjudication of wardship for both children and moved to place them in the temporary custody of a Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) guardianship administrator. Following a hearing, the circuit court found probable cause to believe the children were abused or neglected and that it was a matter of immediate and urgent necessity that the children be placed temporarily in the custody of a DCFS guardianship administrator.
After an adjudicatory hearing on June 22, 1999, the circuit court adjudicated both children abused and neglected. Deshante was born drug exposed in violation of section 2-3(1)(c) (705 ILCS 405/2-3(1)(c) (West 2000)) of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (705 ILCS 405/1-1 et seq. (West 2000) (Juvenile Court Act)) and Dreonte was subjected to an injurious environment and a substantial risk of physical injury in contravention of sections 2-3(1)(b) and 2-3(2)(ii) (705 ILCS 405/2-3(1)(b), (2)(ii) (West 2000)) of the Juvenile Court Act.
On September 10, 1999, the circuit court adjudicated the children wards of the court and ruled that respondent was unable, unwilling and unfit to care for, protect, train and discipline Deshante and Dreonte. The DCFS guardianship administrator then was appointed with the right to place the children.
On January 16, 2001, the State filed supplemental petitions to terminate respondent's parental rights and moved to appoint a guardian with the right to consent to the children's adoptions. The petitions alleged that respondent was an unfit parent because she: (1) abandoned the children; (2) failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern or responsibility for the children's welfare; (3) deserted the children for more than three months next preceding the commencement of the termination proceedings; (4) was an habitual drunkard and/or addicted to drugs other than those prescribed by a physician for at least one year immediately prior to the commencement of the unfitness proceeding; and (5) failed to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions which were the basis for the removal of the children and/or to make reasonable progress toward the return of the children within nine months after the adjudication of abuse or neglect and/or within any nine month period after said finding.
During the unfitness portion of the termination proceedings, the State and Public Guardian published several DCFS service plans that had been admitted into evidence. An April 13, 1999 service plan stated that respondent made unsatisfactory progress toward the return of her children and documented that she neither sought to complete services, nor visited the children more than once in the previous three months. The October 13, 1999 service plan rated respondent's progress toward the goal of returning her children home as unsatisfactory and noted that no services were put in place due to her lack of interest in complying with the social services agency. This plan also stated that respondent was expected to complete a drug treatment program at the Cook County Jail. An April 13, 2000 service plan stated that respondent did not make herself available for services and documented that she was incarcerated due to her August 2000 arrest for possession of a controlled substance. During her incarceration, respondent did not send cards, gifts or money to her children.
Follow-up reports stated that respondent had completed her drug treatment program in March 2001. Since that time, respondent has visited the children at least once a week.
The circuit court found respondent unfit, noting that she failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern and responsibility for the welfare of her children and to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions which were the bases of the children's removal from custody within nine months of the adjudication date. According to the court, respondent neither completed any services, nor visited the children on a regular basis.
A best interest hearing followed, wherein Valencia Phillips, a case manager for Central Baptist Family Services, testified on direct examination that the children were placed with Danielle Barnes, respondent's niece. Phillips described the home as safe and appropriate. She stated that the children are bonded closely with their foster mother. Barnes' three biological children also have bonded well with Deshante and Dreonte. Phillips did not observe signs of abuse or neglect in the foster home. According to Phillips, the foster placement was stable since February 2001.
Phillips also stated she did not discuss adoption with the children due to their young ages. Barnes refused to adopt Deshante and Dreonte because she did not want to interfere with the relationship between respondent and her children. Phillips discovered that Barnes did not want to adopt the children immediately prior to the parental rights termination hearing.
On cross-examination, Phillips testified that the children wished to remain with Barnes. Phillips recommended that subsidized guardianship would be in the children's best interests. She stated that moving from Barnes' home would be traumatic for the children because of their close-knit bond with Barnes. Although the children could be removed from Barnes' home if respondent's parental rights were terminated, ...