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In re Diana L.

August 29, 2003


Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 14th Judicial Circuit, Mercer County, Illinois, No. 99-JA-3 Honorable Alan G. Blackwood & John L. Bell, Judges Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice McDADE


The circuit court granted a juvenile petition for wardship, finding that the minor, Diana E., was sexually abused by respondent James L., her adoptive father. The State subsequently filed a petition to terminate parental rights. The court granted the State's petition, and respondent appeals. We are asked to determine whether: (1) the State's petition to terminate parental rights was defective on its face; (2) the finding of unfitness was contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence; and (3) the trial court abused its discretion in terminating his parental rights. We affirm.


On April 19, 1999, the State filed a one-count juvenile petition for wardship, alleging that the minor, born July 6, 1986, had been sexually abused by respondent and taken into protective custody. Following an adjudicatory hearing, the court found the minor abused. The court subsequently entered a dispositional order granting the State's petition for wardship and awarding the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) temporary custody. Meanwhile, the State charged respondent with aggravated criminal sexual abuse in connection with his conduct toward Diana between March 1998 and April 1999 (Mercer County court case No. 99--CF--28). On November 24, 1999, respondent was found guilty but mentally ill and sentenced to a five-year term of imprisonment.

On February 1, 2000, the State filed a supplemental petition to terminate respondent's parental rights. The petition alleged that respondent was unfit to have a child in that he (1) acted with extreme cruelty to the minor (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(e) (West 2000)); (2) committed other misconduct--i.e., aggravated criminal abuse--upon the minor (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(h) (West 2000)); and (3) was incarcerated and would be unable to discharge his parental responsibilities for more than two years while the minor was in DCFS guardianship (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(r) (West 2000)). In its prayer for relief, the State asked the court to: (a) find respondent unfit; (b) forever terminate all of respondent's parental rights and any residual rights to the minor; and (c) appoint DCFS as the minor's guardian with power to consent to her adoption.

At the hearing on the supplemental petition, Diana E. testified that respondent and his wife, Sandra, were her foster parents for a year or more before Sandra died in the spring of 1998. A few days after Sandra's death, respondent started touching Diana's genitalia. At first, the touching was done through Diana's clothing. However, over time, respondent removed her clothes and touched her genitalia directly.

Diana said the conduct took place in the basement, in the living room and in respondent's bedroom. It occurred six or eight times, the last time being the night before she was interviewed by the police. Respondent told her he loved her and not to tell anyone what he was doing. He told her that he and his sister did "intimate things" when he was a boy. Diana told no one about the conduct until the police interviewed her in the spring of 1999.

Respondent was the only other witness called by the State in its case-in-chief. Respondent testified that Diana was placed in his home for foster care in August 1997. He admitted that he had been convicted following a stipulated bench trial in case No. 99--CF--28 and that he served 2½ years in prison in that case. Respondent denied, however, that he was guilty of the offense charged. He further denied that the conduct Diana testified to in this case had occurred. Respondent said he must have been mistaken when he gave a statement to the police. He said he enrolled in a sex offender treatment program to address the sexual issues in this case only because the court ordered him to do so.

Michael L., respondent's 31-year-old adopted son, testified for respondent. Michael returned home to live with respondent and Diana immediately after Sandra's death. He said he stayed in the house because of medical problems and slept on a sofa bed in the living room. Michael said he never observed respondent doing anything inappropriate with Diana, and he never saw her unclothed.

Respondent, testifying on his own behalf, stated that Sandra died on March 4, 1998. He said Diana's birth father's parental rights were terminated in February 1998 and he adopted Diana after Sandra died. He said he agreed to a stipulated bench trial in case No. 99--CF-28 on the advice of his attorney. Respondent said he thought he would be released to return home without serving time in prison. Respondent was taking medication for mental illness at the time. When he went to see the police on April 19, 1999, respondent thought he was supposed to talk about Diana telling lies. He denied that he told the police he had fondled Diana's genitalia. He said he signed blank sheets of paper at the police station.

In rebuttal, the State presented deputy sheriff Jonathan Weakley. Weakley testified that he and DCFS investigator Hector Vasquez interviewed respondent on April 16, 1999. At that time, respondent indicated that he may have touched Diana's genital area accidentally while wrestling with her. Three days later, respondent called the sheriff's office and said he wanted to talk. On that occasion, respondent told Weakley that he would not have molested Diana if his wife had been alive. Weakley gave respondent Miranda warnings, and respondent subsequently signed a written statement admitting that he had touched Diana's vaginal area four times. Weakley denied that the pages of the statement were blank when respondent signed them. He stated that he completed the statement by hand, wrote down respondent's answers and then asked respondent to sign the statement after he reviewed it. Respondent's written statement was admitted into evidence.

Following arguments of counsel, the trial court found clear and convincing evidence of unfitness by misconduct as alleged in the State's petition pursuant to section 1(D)(h) of the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(h) (West 2000)). Accordingly, the court entered a finding of unfitness and set the cause for a best interest hearing.

On March 19, 2002, in anticipation of the hearing, Diana's caseworker, Lynn Lohman, submitted a report to the court. Diana had been placed in a traditional foster home, and she had expressed a desire to reunite with her birth father. She was frustrated by having to use the name respondent ...

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