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D.F. v. Lashawn F.

December 18, 2003

IN RE D.F. ET AL., MINORS (THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, APPELLEE,
v.
LASHAWN F., APPELLANT).



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Fitzgerald

UNPUBLISHED

Docket No. 94479-Agenda 6-September 2003.

In this appeal we must determine the proper time frame during which a parent's conduct will be assessed for purposes of deciding whether that parent is "unfit," under the grounds set forth in section 1(D)(m) of the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m) (West 2000)). The appellate court determined that the proper time frame is the nine-month period following the trial court's adjudication of neglect, abuse, or dependency, and upheld the trial court's finding of unfitness. 332 Ill. App. 3d 112. For the reasons discussed below, we affirm.

BACKGROUND

Respondent, Lashawn F., is the mother of two children born July 25, 1992, and March 27, 1994. A telephone call to the child abuse hotline in September 1994 brought the family to the attention of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Following investigation, in January 1995, DCFS took temporary custody of the children, and the State filed a petition for adjudication of wardship in the Cook County circuit court. At the adjudicatory hearing on June 16, 1995, the circuit court entered a finding that the children were abused and neglected. The court noted that both children tested positive for cocaine at birth and that respondent's drug use and mental condition created an injurious environment and substantial risk of harm to the children. At the dispositional hearing on February 14, 1996, the circuit court adjudged the children wards of the court and placed guardianship in DCFS. The children were subsequently placed in foster care with a relative of respondent.

On November 1, 1999, the State filed a supplemental petition for appointment of a guardian with right to consent to adoption, i.e., a petition to terminate respondent's parental rights. At the time the petition was filed, respondent had recently begun serving a three-year sentence in the Illinois Department of Corrections for possession of a stolen vehicle. A hearing to determine whether respondent was an unfit parent under the various grounds alleged by the State commenced August 18, 2000. Evidence indicated that prior to her incarceration in 1999, respondent had maintained contact with her children but had failed to engage in any recommended services, including drug rehabilitation. The circuit court found respondent unfit pursuant to section 1(D)(m) of the Adoption Act, in that she failed to make "reasonable efforts" to correct the conditions which were the basis for the removal of her children, and failed to make "reasonable progress" toward their return. See 750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m) (West 2000). The circuit court determined, however, that it was not in the best interests of the children that respondent's parental rights be terminated.

Respondent appealed the circuit court's finding of unfitness, arguing that the court assessed her conduct during the wrong time frames. In finding respondent unfit under section 1(D)(m), the circuit court considered evidence only of respondent's efforts and progress during the nine-month period following its June 16, 1995, adjudication of abuse and neglect. Respondent maintained, however, that the proper date to begin assessing her efforts and progress was the date the circuit court entered its dispositional order: February 14, 1996. Respondent further maintained that although evidence of her progress toward the return of her children was limited to the nine-month period beginning February 14, 1996, evidence of her efforts to correct the conditions which led to the children's removal was not limited to that nine-month period. Rather, the circuit court should have considered evidence of her efforts from February 14, 1996, through August 18, 2000-the date of the fitness hearing. According to respondent, had the circuit court considered evidence of her conduct during this 54-month period, the court would not have found her unfit. The appellate court rejected respondent's arguments and affirmed the judgment of the circuit court. 332 Ill. App. 3d 112. We allowed respondent's petition for leave to appeal (see 177 Ill. 2d R. 315) and now affirm.

ANALYSIS

In a proceeding to terminate parental rights under the Juvenile Court Act of 1987, the State must first demonstrate, by clear and convincing evidence, that the parent is "unfit" under one or more of the grounds set forth in section 1(D) of the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/1(D) (West 2000)). 705 ILCS 405/2-29(2) (West 2000); In re C.W., 199 Ill. 2d 198, 210 (2002). In the present case, the State alleged that respondent was unfit under the grounds contained in section 1(D)(m). At the time the State filed its petition to terminate respondent's parental rights (November 1999), section 1(D)(m) defined unfitness in relevant part as:

"Failure by a parent to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis for the removal of the child from the parent, or to make reasonable progress toward the return of the child to the parent within 9 months after an adjudication of neglected or abused minor under Section 2-3 of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 or dependent minor under Section 2-4 of that Act." 750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m) (West 1998).

On January 1, 2000, two months after the State filed its petition, an earlier legislative amendment to section 1(D)(m), adopted in 1999, took effect. See Pub. Act 91-373, eff. January 1, 2000. The 2000 version of section 1(D)(m) defines unfitness in relevant part as:

"Failure by a parent (i) to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis for the removal of the child from the parent, or (ii) to make reasonable progress toward the return of the child to the parent within 9 months after an adjudication of neglected or abused minor under Section 2-3 of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 or dependent minor under Section 2-4 of that Act, or (iii) to make reasonable progress toward the return of the child to the parent during any 9-month period after the end of the initial 9-month period following the adjudication of neglected or abused minor under Section 2-3 of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 or dependent minor under Section 2-4 of that Act." 750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m) (West 2000).

Thus, the 2000 version of the statute included a third possible ground of unfitness. The wording of the earlier reasonable-efforts and reasonable-progress grounds, however, remained unchanged, with the exception that Roman numerals had been added. The parties agree that the 2000 version of section 1(D)(m), which was in effect at the time of the fitness hearing, is applicable to this case.

Our primary objective in construing section 1(D)(m) is to give effect to the intent of the legislature. See C.W., 199 Ill. 2d at 211. The most reliable indicator of the legislature's intent is the language of the statute, which must be given its plain and ordinary meaning. In re Mary Ann P., 202 Ill. 2d 393, 405 (2002). Where the language is clear and unambiguous, it will be given effect without resort to other aids of construction. Mary Ann P., 202 Ill. 2d at 405; C.W., 199 Ill. 2d at 211. We review the appellate court's interpretation of this statute de novo. See In re C.N., 196 Ill. 2d 181, 208 (2001).

Respondent first argues that the appellate court erred when it concluded that the nine-month period to assess a parent's fitness applies to both the reasonable-efforts ground in subsection (i) and the reasonable-progress ground in subsection (ii). Respondent maintains that the legislature intended, with its amendment in 1999, to "overhaul" section 1(D)(m) by "removing the rigid nine-month evaluation period in the reasonable efforts ground," and that this is evident from the phraseology and construction of the 2000 statute. That is, the 2000 version "sets forth three separate enumerated grounds, specifying a time period for the second and third but not the first." In re D.F., 317 Ill. App. 3d 461, 464-65 (2000). *fn1

A plain language or literal reading of section 1(D)(m) supports respondent's position that the nine-month evaluation period applies only to a parent's reasonable progress and not a parent's reasonable efforts. A court, however, is not bound by the literal language of a statute that produces a result inconsistent with clearly expressed legislative intent, or that yields absurd or unjust consequences not contemplated by the legislature. People v. Hanna, Nos. 94780, 94900 cons., slip op. at 8-9 (October 17, 2003); In re Detention of Lieberman, 201 Ill. 2d 300, 312, 319 (2002); Collins v. Board of Trustees of Firemen's Annuity & Benefit Fund, 155 Ill. 2d 103, 112 (1993); see also People v. Hudson, 46 Ill. 2d 177, 181 (1970) (rules of statutory construction must yield when intent of legislature is otherwise indicated). A literal reading of section 1(D)(m) yields a result inconsistent with the legislature's statements of public policy and purpose contained in both the Juvenile Court Act (705 ILCS 405/1-1 et seq. (West 2000)) and the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/0.01 et seq. (West 2000)).

A stated purpose of the Juvenile Court Act is to secure permanency for minors who have been removed from the custody of their parents "at the earliest opportunity." 705 ILCS 405/1-2(1) (West 2000). In furtherance of this purpose, the Juvenile Court Act provides that if a ground of unfitness under the Adoption Act can be met, it may be appropriate in some instances to "expedite termination of parental rights." 705 ILCS 405/1-2(1) (West 2000). "Liberal construction" of the Juvenile Court Act, to carry out the legislature's stated purpose and policy, is mandated. 705 ILCS 405/1-2(4) (West 2000). The statement of purpose and policy governing adjudicatory hearings also reflects that juvenile court proceedings are time sensitive:

"Purpose and policy. The legislature recognizes that serious delay in the adjudication of abuse, neglect, or dependency cases can cause grave harm to the minor and the family and that it frustrates the health, safety and best interests of the minor and the effort to establish permanent homes for children in need. The purpose of this Section is to insure that, consistent with the federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, Public Law 96-272, as amended, and the intent of this Act, the State of Illinois will act in a just and speedy manner to determine the best interests of the minor, including providing for the safety of the minor, identifying families in need, reunifying families where the minor can be cared for at home without endangering the minor's health or safety and it is in the best interests of the minor, and, if reunification is not consistent with the health, safety and best interests of the minor, finding another permanent home for the minor." 705 ILCS 405/2-14(a) (West 2000).

The Adoption Act expressly provides that it "shall be construed in concert with the Juvenile Court Act of 1987." 750 ILCS 50/2.1 (West 2000). Thus, the Adoption Act must be construed in light of the legislature's stated policy that juvenile court proceedings be brought to an expeditious conclusion. This notion is reinforced by the legislature's express statement that proceedings under the Adoption Act "shall receive priority over other civil cases in being set for hearing," and that appealable orders under the Adoption Act "shall be prosecuted and heard on an expedited basis." 750 ILCS 50/20 (West 2000). Finally, the legislature has determined that "[i]t is in the best interests of persons to be adopted" that the Adoption Act be "construed and interpreted so as not to result in extending time limits beyond those set forth [t]herein." 750 ILCS 50/20a (West 2000).

In light of these clear statements of legislative policy and purpose, it is difficult to conclude, as respondent would have us do, that the legislature intended to remove the nine-month period for assessing a parent's reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that led to the removal of the child and replace it, instead, with an unspecified, open-ended, and essentially unlimited period of time. Such a literal reading of the statute could only result in delaying a child's permanent placement and cannot be reconciled with the legislature's expressly stated policy to expedite juvenile court proceedings. In the words of the public guardian, "[d]elay is antithetical to the purpose and policy of these two statutes." The tension between the literal language of section 1(D)(m) and the legislative policy that animates the Juvenile Court Act and the Adoption Act compels us to use extrinsic aids to construction. As this court recently observed:

" `[I]f the clear language, when read in the context of the statute as a whole or of the commercial or other real-world *** activity that the statute is regulating, points to an unreasonable result, courts do not consider themselves bound by "plain meaning," but have recourse to other interpretive tools in an effort to make sense of the statute.' " Hanna, slip op. at 10, quoting Krzalic v. Republic Title, 314 F.3d 875, 879-80 (7th Cir. 2002).

Accordingly, we turn to the legislative history of section 1(D)(m).

The legislature first added a parent's failure to make reasonable efforts and progress as a ground of unfitness in 1973. See Pub. Act 78-854, eff. October 1, 1973. At that time, the statute specified the 24-month period after an adjudication of neglect as the relevant time frame to assess whether a parent made reasonable efforts or reasonable progress. Ill. Rev. Stat. 1973, ch. 4, par. 9.1-1(D)(l). In 1977, the legislature shortened the 24-month period to a 12-month period. See Pub. Act 80-558, eff. October 1, 1977. The 12-month period remained in place for the next two decades.

In 1997, the legislature amended section 1(D)(m), changing the 12-month evaluation period to a nine-month period. See Pub. Act 90-28, eff. June 25, 1997 (section 1(D)(m) amendments), and eff. January 1, 1998 (all other amendments). This change to section 1(D)(m) of the Adoption Act was one of several measures adopted by the legislature as part of House Bill 165, which amended not only the Adoption Act, but several related acts: the Children and Family Services Act (20 ILCS 505/1 (West 1998)); the Child Care Act of 1969 (225 ILCS 10/1 (West 1998)); the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act (325 ILCS 5/1 (West 1998)); and the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (705 ILCS 405/1-1 (West 1998)). Through the passage of House Bill 165, the legislature also enacted the Interstate Compact on Adoption Act (45 ILCS 17/5-1 (West 1998)). In short, House Bill 165 was a comprehensive approach aimed at "mov[ing] cases along through the system in an expedited fashion," particularly cases that had been "languishing" in the system. 90th Ill. Gen. Assem., House Proceedings, April 24, 1997, at 174, 176 (statements of Representative Dart); see also 90th Ill. Gen. Assem., House Proceedings, May 22, 1997, at 18-19 (statements of Representative Dart).

As already noted, in 1999, the legislature again amended section 1(D)(m). See Pub. Act 91-373, eff. January 1, 2000. Unlike the prior amendment, which was part of a comprehensive measure, the 1999 amendment affected only section 1(D)(m). This amended version of the statute-which is the version at issue here-simply added a provision permitting a finding of unfitness where the parent fails to make reasonable progress during any nine-month period after the initial nine-month period.

Significantly, the brief legislative history contains nothing to indicate that the General Assembly intended to "overhaul" section 1(D)(m), as respondent claims. See 91st Ill. Gen. Assem., Senate Proceedings, May 6, 1999, at 37-38 (statement of Senator Karpiel explaining limited reach of amendment). Indeed, the legislature left intact the language setting forth the nine-month time period. The legislature merely added additional language to the end of the statute, and inserted Roman numerals, breaking up the now-lengthy text.

Respondent places great weight on the addition of the Roman numerals, which function similar to traditional punctuation in a statute. The punctuation of a statute, however, is subordinate to its text. Smith v. County of Logan, 284 Ill. 163, 171-72 (1918). That is, "[i]n the construction of a statute, its punctuation is to be considered and given weight unless from inspection of the whole act it is apparent it must be disregarded in order to arrive at the intention of the legislature." (Emphasis added.) Illinois Bell Telephone Co. v. Ames, 364 Ill. 362, 368 (1936). Our inspection of both the Adoption Act and the Juvenile Court Act, as well as the legislative history of section 1(D)(m), indicates the legislature's ongoing desire to shorten the period of time during which a parent must make reasonable efforts and progress or be deemed unfit. Giving great weight to the addition of the Roman numerals would, as respondent concedes, make the "ending point of the reasonable efforts analysis limitless." We believe that had the legislature intended such a radical departure from its historical treatment of this issue and its express statements of policy, the legislature would have done so directly with appropriate statutory language, rather than resorting to the use of "(i)," "(ii)" and "(iii)."

Respondent argues further that the 1999 amendment of section 1(D)(m) was a reaction to the appellate court's decision in In re Davonte L., 298 Ill. App. 3d 905 (1998), which purportedly misconstrued the statute and created a conflict in the case law. See People v. Hickman, 163 Ill. 2d 250, 262 (1994) (where statutes are enacted after judicial opinions are published, it must be presumed that the legislature acted with knowledge of the prevailing case law).

The events giving rise to the appeal in Davonte L. arose under the version of section 1(D)(m) that contained a 12-month evaluation period. See 750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m) (West 1992). At issue was whether the trial court, at the fitness hearing, could consider evidence of the parent's progress outside the 12-month period. From the date the trial court found Davonte neglected, to the date of the fitness hearing, four years had passed. The trial court focused on the mother's recent efforts, rather than the 12-month period following the adjudication of neglect, and ruled that the State had failed to prove the mother unfit under section 1(D)(m).

The First District reversed, holding that "courts are restricted to allowing evidence only from the 12-month period following an adjudication of neglect in determining parental fitness." Davonte L., 298 Ill. App. 3d at 924. The appellate court reasoned that the legislative history of section 1(D)(m) indicated an intent to shorten the period of time from which evidence of a parent's conduct may be considered, not to lengthen it. Davonte L., 298 Ill. App. 3d at 924. Further, a parent should not be allowed to circumvent his or her own unfitness because a bureaucratic delay in bringing a case to trial allows a parent additional time to take corrective action. Davonte L., 298 Ill. App. 3d at 922. The evidence of the mother's conduct during the relevant 12-month period indicated that she was "clearly an addict and showed almost no interest in Davonte's care or welfare." Davonte L., 298 Ill. App. 3d at 925. Significantly, Davonte L. departed from appellate court decisions in other districts which had held that the 12-month period merely specified the period ...


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