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In re R.B.

February 04, 2003

IN RE: R.B., A MINOR,
THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, PETITIONER-APPELLEE,
v.
GASTON BUTLER, RESPONDENT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from Circuit Court of Champaign County No. 01JA90 Honorable Ann A. Einhorn, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Steigmann

In December 2001, the State filed a petition, alleging that R.B. (born October 2, 1999), the minor child of respondent, Gaston Butler, was a neglected minor under section 2-3(1)(b) of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (Act) (705 ILCS 405/2-3(1)(b) (West 2000)) because her environment was injurious to her welfare when she resided "with [her parents] Sonja Caston and/or Gaston Butler in that said environment exposes" R.B. to the risk of domestic violence. Following adjudicatory hearings in February and March 2002, the trial court found that R.B. was a neglected minor. Following a May 2002 dispositional hearing, the court adjudicated R.B. a ward of the court, appointed the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) as her guardian, and ordered her removed from the custody of both Caston and Butler.

Butler appeals, arguing that the trial court (1) improperly accepted Caston's stipulation as evidence against him; (2) violated his fourteenth amendment right to fundamentally fair procedures; and (3) made a decision that was contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. We affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

R.B. was the two-year-old daughter of Butler and Caston when the State filed its December 2001 neglect petition. In response to that petition, the trial court appointed counsel for R.B., directed the circuit clerk to issue summons for all parties, and allotted the case for a January 22, 2002, admonition hearing. The court also set the case for an adjudicatory hearing on February 26, 2002.

At the January 22, 2002, admonition hearing, Caston appeared personally, but Butler did not. The trial court (1) received a new address for Butler, (2) amended the neglect petition accordingly, (3) allotted Butler's admonition hearing for February 21, 2002, and (4) directed new summons to issue for Butler with the new admonition hearing date. The court also granted Caston's motion for appointed counsel and reaffirmed February 26, 2002, as the date for the adjudicatory hearing.

On February 21, 2002, the trial court called the case for Butler's admonition hearing, but neither Butler nor anyone on his behalf appeared. The court directed alias summons to issue for Butler and reaffirmed the February 26, 2002, date for the adjudicatory hearing.

A. The Initial Phase of the Adjudicatory Hearing

On February 26, 2002, when the trial court called the case for adjudicatory hearing, the following people were present: Caston, Caston's counsel, R.B.'s counsel, the prosecutor, and Butler, who appeared for the first time. The court's discussion with Butler revealed that one of the notices sent to him at his address in Matteson, Illinois, successfully reached him. The court informed Butler of the allegations in the State's neglect petition and appropriately explained the State's burden of proof and Butler's rights during the proceedings. The court also informed Butler that he had the right to be represented by counsel and that one would be appointed for him if he could not afford to hire an attorney of his own choice. Butler stated that he was not able to hire an attorney and would like to have one appointed for him. The court granted his request and appointed an assistant public defender to represent him. However, that counsel was not then present in court.

The following discussion then occurred between the trial court, Butler, and some of the other parties:

"THE COURT: Mr. Butler, you did not appear previously, and so this is the first time that you are here. This is the date set for that adjudicatory hearing for the presentation of evidence; you understand that?

[BUTLER]: Yes, ma'am.

THE COURT: Are you able to go forward today even though your counsel cannot be here because I've just appointed him, he had no advance notice of this?

[BUTLER]: I don't believe that I could because I don't know what rights or anything that I do have, and I would like to speak with somebody to get counsel.

[THE PROSECUTOR]: People object to the motion to continue.

THE COURT: And--

[CASTON'S COUNSEL]: For the record I would also object[, noting] that [Caston] is eight months pregnant and she's come from the Chicago area, notwithstanding the weather.

THE COURT: I note the somewhat unusual circumstances in this [case]. I note that extensive efforts were made to try and contact Mr. Butler so that he could be here previously.

And in fact the court had ordered summons to issue, also ordered notice by publication early on in case that notice, in case the summons could not be served.

I take note of the circumstances. The court is going to deny the motion for a continuance, and I rely particularly on the efforts of [Caston] to be present today, in spite of what was close to blizzard-like conditions, the court taking note of the weather conditions outside. Mr. Butler, at this point I'm going to proceed. The court will treat liberally any motions your attorney may feel are necessary after the fact, and I note also the subpoenaed witnesses are present. I'm going to allow [the prosecutor] to proceed at this time."

B. The Factual Basis for Caston's Admission and Stipulation

Later during the adjudicatory hearing, Caston offered to admit and stipulate to the neglect allegation in the State's petition. In support of Caston's offer, the prosecutor presented as a factual basis People's exhibit No. 1, which consisted of the reports of two Champaign police officers regarding an incident they responded to on September 17, 2001. The State offered that exhibit to demonstrate that the environment in which R.B. resided when she lived with Caston and Butler exposed her to the risk of domestic violence. The prosecutor noted that the officers whose reports made up People's exhibit No. 1 were present in court and ready to testify if needed. The prosecutor also indicated that to further show a factual basis, the parties agreed that the trial court could consider the verified petition Caston signed following the September 17, 2001, incident, in which she sought an order of protection against Butler. The court accepted Caston's admission and stipulation and accepted as a factual basis for it the police reports in People's exhibit No. 1 and Caston's sworn statement in the order of protection case. (We note that although the court referred to Caston's sworn statement, it is not contained in the record on appeal.)

The first police report stated that on the date in question, Champaign police officer Randy Beech responded to a domestic disturbance call at Caston and Butler's residence. Caston stated that she, R.B., and J.A., who was Caston's 10-year-old daughter by another man, were watching television when Butler walked into the back bedroom and asked where his belongings were. She told him that she had packed them up because she wanted him to move out. He said he was not going to leave, started to argue with her, and then choked her until she blacked out. She did not awaken until the police were present. Caston informed the officers that she feared for her life and was afraid of Butler. The officers saw scratches and marks on her neck. When Beech arrived, J.A. was in the apartment and "crying uncontrollably."

The report of Champaign police officer Russell Beck was substantially similar to Beech's report, but it contained some additional details. It noted that (1) Caston was then six to eight weeks pregnant; and (2) the police were called when J.A. went to a neighbor's house at Caston's direction to call the police. When ...


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