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In re Cornica J.

August 09, 2004


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County. Nos. 02--JA--237 & 02--JA--238. Honorable Brian P. Hughes, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Bowman


Following an evidentiary hearing, the circuit court of Lake County found that respondents, Tonya L. and Clayton J., were unfit parents under section 1(D)(p) of the Adoption Act (Act) (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(p) (West 2002)). The court subsequently terminated respondents' parental rights to Cornica J. and Cortrell J. On appeal, respondents argue that the circuit court erred by finding them unfit and by terminating their parental rights. We reverse.


Cornica, born January 31, 1999, and Cortrell, born March 22, 2000, were adjudicated neglected and made wards of the court on June 26, 2000. On September 19, 2002, the State filed a petition to terminate respondents' parental rights to both minors (and four children who are not subjects of this appeal). The petition alleged that respondents were unable to discharge parental responsibilities, due to mental impairment, mental illness, mental retardation, or developmental disability, and that there was sufficient justification to believe that such inability would extend beyond a reasonable time period. 750 ILCS 50/1(D)(p) (West 2002).

At the fitness hearing, the State's only witness was Dr. Valerie Bouchard, who testified as follows. Dr. Bouchard, a clinical psychologist licensed in Illinois in 1996, completed a "parenting capacity assessment" for each respondent on January 7, 2002. The assessment is designed to provide information regarding the nature of the parent-child relationship. The parenting capacity assessment consisted of a one-hour parent-child observation session and an individual interview with each parent. Each interview included a mental status exam, a clinical interview, and the administration of two parenting measures.

The parent-child observation session took place in a room at the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) containing a small table, several chairs, and various play items. The session included both respondents, Cornica, Cortrell, and respondent mother's four older children. Dr. Bouchard remained in the room throughout the session, and respondents were informed that they would be observed.

At the beginning of the session, Dr. Bouchard noticed that the children greeted, approached, and hugged respondent mother, but not respondent father. Respondents were sitting in chairs when the children arrived and waited for the children to initiate contact with them. Throughout this portion of the assessment, respondents were extremely passive, getting out of their chairs only once. For the most part, respondent mother watched the children play, getting up once to initiate contact with them. Respondent father was observed coloring in a book by himself and getting up once to retrieve a child from the bathroom. At one point, respondent father called Cornica and Cortrell over to him to hug them, hold them, and kiss them.

According to Dr. Bouchard, respondents exhibited a high level of passivity and difficulty in managing the children. The children's level of activity was high and their behavior was "pretty chaotic." At times, the children threw objects around the room, and there was no intervention until someone got hit in the head. When that happened, respondent mother dealt with the situation by raising her voice and telling the child not to throw the object. This sequence occurred approximately three times. The children continued to throw objects without any intervention until respondent mother raised her voice higher, and then the behavior stopped. Respondent mother's oldest child provided the most structure during the session by organizing some activities for the children. Respondent mother did join in those activities for a short time.

At the end of the session, Dr. Bouchard conducted a separate interview with each respondent. She administered a mental status exam to determine if respondents were oriented to reality, aware of what was going on, and capable of participating in the interview process. This was followed by a clinical interview to obtain information about their backgrounds, the reasons for DCFS involvement, and their general impressions of the situation. In addition, a Parent Awareness Skills Survey was used to measure respondents' abilities to intervene in typical parent-child problems. Finally, the Bricklin Parenting Questionnaire provided information about respondents' knowledge of their children's interests, desires, concerns, and uniqueness.

In terms of the mental status examination, respondent father was fully oriented to reality and able to understand the procedures and participate in the interview process. He was able to identify two primary means of intervening with the children, time-outs and withholding privileges, as appropriate disciplinary measures. In the clinical interview, respondent father articulated a basic understanding of the reasons the children had been removed from their care. He expressed the belief that he was being treated unfairly and that each time he made a step toward meeting some of the requirements, another requirement would be added. In his view, this was a deliberate attempt on the part of DCFS personnel to prevent reunification with his children.

Respondent father exhibited a weakness in his capacity to intervene in the emotional issues of a child. He exhibited a lack of knowledge about average child development and the emotional needs of a child, such as how to intervene with a child who is excessively shy or needs special education. In addition, the Bricklin Parenting Questionnaire revealed that respondent father lacked knowledge of the particular interests and concerns of each child. He did not know the children's interests or hobbies.

With respect to respondent mother, the mental status examination indicated that she was oriented to reality, aware of the circumstances of the assessment, and capable of participating in the interview process. She demonstrated familiarity with the techniques of time-outs and loss of privileges for misbehavior. However, respondent mother possessed very little awareness of a child's emotional needs or age-appropriate developmental needs. When a dangerous scenario was presented to her, she did not understand that it was dangerous or could result in injury. Respondent mother also exhibited the potential to provide "questionable moral guidance" when confronted with certain behavior, such as lying. Finally, the Bricklin Parenting Questionnaire indicated that respondent mother lacked knowledge of the interests, concerns, and issues of each child.

After completing the individual interviews with respondents, Dr. Bouchard observed the end of the visit. Neither the children nor their parents initiated saying "good-bye" until reminded to do so.

A few days later, Dr. Bouchard observed respondents in their home to determine if the environment was suitable for the children. Respondents live in a high-rise apartment with three bedrooms. The apartment was "essentially clean," with a working microwave and refrigerator, although there were no protective devices on the outlets or the cabinets. There was not enough sleeping space for six children, and the apartment contained very little furniture and few toys.

Dr. Bouchard again evaluated respondents in September 2002. Respondent father arrived on time for his appointment on September 27, 2002, and Dr. Bouchard administered a battery of tests. Overall, respondent father was "functioning below average." The Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (cognitive functioning) revealed an IQ score of 69, which falls in the extremely low range of intellectual functioning. There was a significant discrepancy between his verbal score and his overall IQ score, indicative of emotional interference. The Wide Range Achievement Test (grade equivalent functioning) showed that his word pronunciation, word recognition, and spelling abilities were at a third-grade level, and his arithmetic ability was at a fifth-grade level. Due to his limited verbal skills, respondent father could not provide enough responses to validate the results on the Rorschach Ink Blot Test. According to the Bender Visual-Motor Gestalt Test (neurological screening mechanism), respondent father had no neurological problems. Further, he satisfactorily completed the Symptoms Checklist, which is a list of immediate symptoms or problems a person may be experiencing, as well as the Rotter Incomplete Sentences Test. Finally, respondent father scored 45 out of 100 on the global assessment of functioning scale, indicating an impairment in daily functioning that affected interpersonal relationships and the ability to maintain a job.

Dr. Bouchard evaluated the test results. She found strong evidence of poor impulse control, meaning that respondent father reacted very quickly without thinking through his responses. In addition, his emotions changed more rapidly than would be expected for the average person. Respondent father was very self-centered and exhibited difficulty understanding or responding to others' needs. Further, he was emotionally inaccessible and compensated for inadequacies by being aggressive. Respondent father had "a general personality immaturity" and a deep sense of personal inferiority. Dr. Bouchard diagnosed respondent father with dysthymic disorder, indicating that he had a history of chronic depression. There was also evidence of cannabis dependence. Respondent father did not have the personality features significant enough to diagnose a personality disorder, although features of paranoia and narcissism were present. Dr. Bouchard noted a number of stress factors that contributed to his level of functioning, such as involvement in the child welfare system, separation from his children, a volatile relationship with respondent mother, and problems with substance abuse. In Dr. Bouchard's opinion, the children should not be returned to respondent father's care. The bonding assessment revealed a lack of attachment to the children. It also revealed a lack of initiation of affection, attention, and focus on the children. Dr. Bouchard was concerned about respondent father's capacity to provide safe and adequate discipline and about the children's exposure to drug use. She noted his history of cannabis dependence and his recent use of the drug. Further, she was concerned about respondent father's inability to understand the children's developmental and emotional needs. While respondent father had previously been involved in parenting classes, he did not consistently attend sessions, and reports revealed a lack of progress. Dr. Bouchard opined that his parenting skills would not improve in a reasonable period of time.

Dr. Bouchard administered the same tests to respondent mother on September 30, 2002. The mental status exam revealed that respondent mother was fully oriented to reality and that there were no significant problems that would prevent participation in the assessment. In terms of cognitive abilities, respondent mother's IQ score was 74, placing her in the borderline range of intellectual functioning. There was no significant difference between her verbal and her performance scaled scores, indicating that her skills were fairly evenly developed. However, she was unable to complete the Rotter Incomplete Sentences Test, the Rorschach Ink Blot Test, or the Symptoms Checklist. On the Wide Range Achievement Test, respondent mother scored below average. She obtained a reading score of third-grade level, a spelling score of fifth-grade level, and an arithmetic score of fourth-grade level. Finally, her current global functioning score was 35 out of 100, indicating that she had some impairment in her daily functioning.

In terms of personality functioning, the tests revealed a high degree of personality disturbance, extreme personality disorganization, and poor contact with reality. There were indications of poor impulse control and inadequate social judgment. Respondent mother exhibited high impulsiveness and significant immaturity and was very reluctant to show her feelings or trust others. Her symptoms and problems were consistent with a diagnosis of chronic depression and intermittent explosive disorder. In addition, she had trouble functioning independently and had dependent personality disorder. The stress factors relevant to her situation included the child welfare system, the separation from her children, and the recent separation from respondent father.

In Dr. Bouchard's opinion, respondent mother was unable to successfully and safely care for the children. This opinion was based on respondent mother's personality disorganization, her passivity in responding to the children, the children's lack of a bond with her, and her inability to protect the children from danger. Although respondent mother could articulate appropriate child discipline techniques, she failed to apply them. Dr. Bouchard had concerns about respondent mother's cognitive limitations, which were further impaired by disorganized emotional ...

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