Appeal from Circuit Court of Logan County No. 00JA13; No. 00JA14 Honorable Charles M. Feeney, Judge Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Appleton
Respondent, Melissa Faulkner, appeals from the order of the circuit court of Logan County finding her an unfit parent and terminating her parental rights. Respondent argues (1) that the trial court violated her rights to due process, and (2) the trial court's findings were against the manifest weight of the evidence. We reverse.
On March 2, 1999, the State filed a petition in Peoria County for adjudication of wardship with respect to respondent's minor children, Alixandra F. (born November 30, 1992) and Jacob K. (born March 16, 1996). The petition alleged that Jacob was an abused minor in that his father, Wesley Kile (not a party to this appeal), hit Jacob in the face causing a bruise (count I) and that both Jacob and Alixandra were neglected minors in that their environment was injurious to their welfare based upon the above incident of abuse (count II). On June 10, 1999, the trial court in Peoria County entered an order for shelter care. The children remained at home with respondent. At the shelter-care hearing, respondent admitted the allegations in the petition and agreed to keep the children away from Jacob's father.
On September 9, 1999, the trial court entered a dispositional order placing the children under the guardianship of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). The trial court found Jacob's father unfit based upon proof of the petition and his lack of cooperation with DCFS. At the time, the trial court expressly reserved a ruling on respondent's fitness. The court ordered both parents to cooperate with DCFS and to comply with the requirements contained in their client service plans. Respondent's plan required that she (1) undergo a psychological evaluation, following all recommendations contained therein, (2) engage in individual counseling for domestic battery and sexual abuse, (3) attend parenting classes, and (4) submit to random drug tests. (The later requirement was apparently imposed only because respondent, an epileptic, suffered a seizure in open court.) Respondent retained custody of both children.
In April 2000, respondent moved from Peoria County to Logan County; therefore, the case was transferred to Catholic Social Services (CSS) in Lincoln, Logan County, Illinois. On April 17, 2000, after her move, respondent voluntarily relinquished custody of her children to DCFS. Due to her epileptic seizures, respondent felt that she was unable to properly care for the children.
On November 5, 2001, the State filed a petition to terminate respondent's parental rights, alleging she was an unfit parent pursuant to section 1(D)(m)(iii) of the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m)(iii) (West 2000)) in that she failed to make reasonable progress toward the return of the children during any nine-month period after the end of the initial nine-month period following the adjudication of the children as neglected or abused minors under section 2-3 of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (Juvenile Court Act) (705 ILCS 405/2-3 (West 2000)).
On March 14, 2002, respondent filed a motion to dismiss the State's termination petition, alleging that because the trial court did not find respondent unfit as required by section 2-27(1) of the Juvenile Court Act (705 ILCS 405/2-27(1) (West 2000)) in the order of adjudication, the court could not proceed on the petition to terminate. On March 14, 2002, at the hearing on respondent's motion, the trial court denied respondent's request for relief.
On March 14, 2002, the trial court began to hear evidence on the State's petition to terminate. Bambi Downing, the CSS caseworker, testified that she received this case from DCFS upon respondent's move from Peoria to Lincoln in April 2000. When Downing received the case, respondent had recently given birth to her third child, whom she gave up for adoption. Respondent had also already completed the court-ordered psychological evaluation. Downing testified that respondent visited her children regularly. In August 2000, respondent moved to Connecticut after she was evicted from her apartment in Lincoln because of her inability to pay rent. After respondent's move, Downing contacted an investigator with the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, who informed her that respondent was homeless. Downing was unable to contact respondent from mid-July through mid-November 2000. Because of the lack of communication, Downing rated respondent's progress unsatisfactory on her February 19, 2001, service plan. Respondent's reason for moving to Connecticut was to reconnect with her birth mother and to seek treatment for her epilepsy at the Epilepsy Research Foundation in Connecticut. Because respondent was involved with the epilepsy foundation, Downing gave respondent a satisfactory rating on her service plan pertaining to treatment.
Downing testified that respondent had begun, but had not completed, domestic-violence counseling and parenting classes while living in Lincoln. Downing told respondent that CSS would contact the Interstate Compact Unit in Connecticut to help her with services there. However, Downing later learned that the Interstate Compact Unit was only for children's services. Downing told respondent that she would have to seek out services on her own. Downing contacted respondent's counselor in Connecticut, who reported to Downing that respondent initially failed to keep her appointments but had not missed any in the last couple months. Downing also received confirmation that respondent had successfully completed an eight-week parenting class in July 2001. Downing rated respondent unsatisfactory on her domestic-violence counseling objective.
Downing testified that respondent stayed in touch with her children initially through weekly telephone visits facilitated by CSS. No telephone visits occurred between mid-July through mid-November 2001, when Downing lost contact with respondent. Respondent later informed Downing that she was homeless and without a phone during that time. Kerri McAvay, a caseworker with the Epilepsy Foundation of Connecticut, contacted Downing and informed her that respondent wanted to resume the telephone visits with her children. Downing agreed. Downing testified that she discussed with respondent the necessity of completing the tasks required by her service plan or she risked having her parental rights terminated.
Although she knew respondent had applied for federal and state assistance and had worked several jobs, Downing rated respondent unsatisfactory on the requirement of obtaining a legal source of income because Downing had not received proof from respondent. Downing admitted that some of the unsatisfactory ratings were due to her inability to verify the facts. Downing admitted she did not ask McAvay for assistance in verifying information.
Respondent testified she had suffered from epilepsy since she was a child. Respondent suffered seizures despite taking medication and therefore was prevented from driving, maintaining employment, and caring for her children.
Respondent moved from Peoria to Lincoln near her ex-husband, Alixandra's father, and his wife, Michelle. In April 2000, respondent voluntarily placed her children with DCFS due to her epilepsy problems. DCFS placed Jacob in the foster care of Wayne and Kathy Boatman and Alixandra with her father.
In August 2000, respondent moved to Connecticut with the hope that she would receive better medical treatment. She had received treatment in Connecticut as a child. She testified that she left her children in Illinois because she did not know what to expect in Connecticut, worried about their stability, wanted to avoid the dislocation from their fathers, and felt it was in their best interest to stay together in Illinois.
Respondent lived with her mother for only one month in Connecticut. Respondent described her mother as mentally ill. She then lived in an apartment and worked at various jobs. In February 2001, respondent gave birth to a boy, her third child. Respondent gave him up for adoption because she felt she was unable to properly care for him. At the time, she was homeless and without access to a phone. However, while she was homeless, she completed the parenting classes ordered by the trial court.
In August 2001, respondent contacted the Epilepsy Foundation of Connecticut and was assigned to a caseworker, Kerri McAvay. McAvay helped respondent get appropriate medical care with a specialist at Yale Medical Center, established counseling services, and arranged for respondent to receive public assistance. Respondent met a friend, Danny Patton, with whom she began to live. With her medical condition under control, respondent was hopeful of moving back to Illinois and regaining custody of her ...