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In re M.M.

March 21, 2003

IN RE M.M. AND E.S., MINORS
(THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, PETITIONER-APPELLEE, V. SYLVIA M., RESPONDENT-APPELLANT).



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Kane County. No. 97-JA-105 Honorable Judith M. Brawka, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice O'malley

Released for publication March 24, 2003.

IN RE M.M. AND E.S., MINORS
(THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, PETITIONER-APPELLEE, V. SYLVIA M., RESPONDENT-APPELLANT).

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Kane County. No. 97-JA-105 Honorable Judith M. Brawka, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice O'malley

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Respondent, Sylvia M., the biological mother of E.S. and M.M., the minors involved in this case, appeals from an order of the circuit court of Kane County that (1) appointed the minors' foster parents as their guardians, (2) vacated an earlier order that appointed the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) as guardian of the minors, (3) terminated wardship, and (4) closed the juvenile case. Respondent argues that the trial court's decision was against the manifest weight of the evidence. The State responds that the trial court's order is not a final judgment and, therefore, we have no jurisdiction to hear this appeal. We hold that jurisdiction is proper, and we affirm.

We focus our attention on the facts that led to the trial court's determination that guardianship was in the best interests of the minors because it is that decision that is the subject of this appeal. The other facts are outlined briefly for context.

According to a report filed by DCFS, in October 1997 Elgin police officers, in the course of investigating a truancy, entered the apartment home of M.M.'s and E.S.'s paternal uncles. There the officers observed M.M. in a state of undress and without adult supervision or food. The police officers reported the apartment had a strong foul odor, the kitchen was filthy, and cockroaches were crawling on the walls and floors. The other minors present informed police that M.M.'s paternal grandmother, Iris M., was M.M.'s primary caretaker and that respondent would leave M.M. at their home for long periods of time.

On October 20, 1997, the trial court appointed Court-Appointed Special Advocates of Kane County (CASA) as guardian ad litem for the minors. Also on that date, the State filed a petition for adjudication, alleging that E.S. and M.M. were neglected and that M.M. was abused. Respondent stipulated to neglect, and the abuse count was withdrawn. On January 7, 1998, a dispositional order was entered naming M.M. and E.S. wards of the court. Pursuant to the order, M.M. was placed in the custody of DCFS, while E.S. remained in respondent's custody. On April 8, 1998, however, following an emergency motion by the State, the trial court held a hearing on E.S.'s custody. The court found that both respondent's and E.S.'s whereabouts were unknown and entered an order placing E.S. in the custody and guardianship of the State.

According to a report filed by CASA on May 27, 1998, respondent was living with friends in Palatine, Illinois, and had a job nearby. A report filed by DCFS on September 16, 1998, confirmed that respondent was living in Palatine and was earning $300 per week working at a Menards store.

According to a letter written by David Langenstrass, the supervisor for DCFS's Elgin office, M.M.'s and E.S.'s cases were sent to the northern region administrative office of DCFS from the Kane County office on February 25, 1999, for transfer to Cook County. The cases were finally transferred to the Cook County DCFS office on April 5, 1999.

Respondent testified that she lost her job at Menards in July 1999 because of accounting errors at the cash register she was operating. In August 1999 respondent lost her apartment in Palatine and, subsequently, moved in with her boyfriend in Rolling Meadows.

After a permanency hearing held on November 15, 1999, the court found that the tasks and services that respondent was to complete were not sufficiently delineated. Accordingly, the court ordered that respondent complete parenting classes within 10 weeks, make visits on a regular basis with the children, continue to provide day care for the children, and demonstrate the ability to care for the minors in a safe and appropriate environment. At a permanency review hearing on February 28, 2000, the court found that respondent did not complete parenting classes within 10 weeks and missed a substantial number of visits with M.M. and E.S. Moreover, the court noted that instability in housing remained a problem, as respondent had moved again since the previous hearing on November 15. Respondent had, however, obtained employment as a teller at Harris Bank about one month before the hearing. At the conclusion of this hearing, the permanency goal was changed from "return home" to "termination of parental rights."

Sometime prior to May 31, 2000, DCFS worker Karen Austin was assigned to respondent's case. Although Austin stated that she had made a diligent search, she did not successfully make contact with respondent until a court hearing held on September 8, 2000. During the period before the court hearing, respondent was visiting her children regularly.

On October 24, 2000, the State filed an amended motion for the termination of parental rights as to E.S. and M.M. The State alleged in its motion that respondent was unfit as a parent because she failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern, or responsibility as to the minors' welfare (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(b) (West 2000)). Thereafter, a trial was conducted on the issue of respondent's fitness.

On February 20, 2001, at the conclusion of the trial, the court found that the State did not show by clear and convincing evidence that respondent failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest. Accordingly, the court did not find respondent unfit. The court pointed out, however, that this did not necessarily change the permanency goal back to return home. Rather, the court directed DCFS to readdress the permanency goal in a new permanency report.

At a permanency review hearing held on May 18, 2001, the trial court found that DCFS had not presented the new permanency report to respondent in a timely manner. The court also noted that in the report tendered to the court DCFS had left the termination of parental rights and adoption as the permanency goal despite the fact that the court had not found respondent unfit. The court continued the hearing to May 24, 2001.

On May 18, 2001, DCFS submitted a report from a "parental capacity assessment" conducted by Martha Sutherland of Apex Assessments & Counseling, Ltd. Based on interviews and observation, the report concluded that E.S. and M.M. were bonded more to their foster parents than to respondent and that separation from the foster parents would be "very traumatic" for the minors. Sutherland recommended that the foster parents "retain guardianship" of the minors and that respondent be allowed visitation. On May 24, 2001, DCFS filed a new permanency report in which it recommended a permanency goal of guardianship.

At a review hearing on May 24, 2001, the trial court found that respondent's failure to timely complete parenting classes, which contributed to the change in the permanency goal to adoption at the February 8, 2000, permanency hearing, was caused by the Cook County DCFS's referral of respondent to parenting classes that did not allow respondent to complete the classes by the court-prescribed deadline. The court believed that this mistake may have caused significant unnecessary delay.

The court found that a goal of return home could not be ruled out, but it noted that, because of the length of time the minors had been out of respondent's custody, the minors might not be able to make the transition necessary for a return home. Thus, the court set the permanency goal as return home within 12 months with concurrent planning for guardianship. The court also ordered DCFS to set up family therapy to assist in achieving the goal of return home.

Gloria Rodriguez, one of the therapists who met with the children, opined in a written report dated October 17, 2001, that guardianship was in the best interests of the minors. Rodriguez stated that it appeared that the minors were very attached to the foster parents but had no such attachment to respondent. When Rodriguez asked E.S. whether she minded visiting respondent, E.S. responded that she would rather not because she did not feel comfortable with respondent. Rodriguez also observed that E.S. appeared displeased when mention was made of ...


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