Appeal from the Circuit Court of Winnebago County. No. 02-JA-75 Honorable Patrick L. Heaslip, Judge, Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Byrne
Respondent, J.M., appeals an order terminating his parental rights to his daughter, Tiffany M. The trial court found J.M. to be unfit for failing to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern, or responsibility toward Tiffany's welfare (see 750 ILCS 50/1(D)(b) (West 2002)) and for failing to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis for her removal or to make reasonable progress toward her return home (see 750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m) (West 2002)). Respondent argues that the court's findings are against the manifest weight of the evidence and that the termination of his parental rights was not in Tiffany's best interest. We affirm.
The State simultaneously petitioned to terminate the parental rights of respondent and Tiffany's mother. Respondent's appellate brief contains a 35-page recitation of the procedural history concerning only the mother, who is not a party to this appeal. It is unclear why respondent's counsel included such a long statement of mostly irrelevant facts while devoting only seven pages to legal analysis. We agree with the State that much of respondent's statement of facts does not comply with Supreme Court Rule 341(e)(6) and should be disregarded. See Official Reports Advance Sheet No. 21 (October 17, 2001), R. 341(e)(6), eff. October 1, 2001 (appellant's brief must contain an accurate statement of facts, without argument, necessary to an understanding of the case). Accordingly, we strike the irrelevant portions of respondent's brief.
Tiffany was born on April 3, 2002, and placed in foster care two days later. Tiffany's mother had eight other children who had previously been removed from her care. The State filed a petition alleging that Tiffany was a neglected minor because she lived in an injurious environment where her mother suffered from mental health problems that prevented her from parenting. Tiffany was adjudicated a neglected minor and made a ward of the court on October 22, 2002. Respondent had been incarcerated on a drug offense but was released from jail on November 25, 2002. On December 13, 2002, respondent appeared in court as the putative father and the court ordered paternity testing, which confirmed that respondent was Tiffany's father.
Respondent appeared in court and counsel was appointed for him on April 22, 2003. The trial court ordered respondent to work with the family caseworker to cure the conditions that caused Tiffany to be taken into protective custody. The court further admonished respondent that he might face a petition to terminate his parental rights if he did not make reasonable efforts and reasonable progress within the next nine months and every nine-month period thereafter.
Respondent was not employed at the time of the April 22, 2003, hearing, but the assistant State's Attorney informed the court that respondent had submitted to a protective services assessment. Respondent's counsel told the court that respondent was on a waiting list for a criminal justice inpatient drug treatment program and was attending alcoholics anonymous (AA) and narcotics anonymous (NA) meetings. The court ordered respondent to remain drug- and alcohol-free, submit to treatment and random drug testing as recommended by the caseworker, and sign all necessary releases of information. The court set the permanency goal of return home.
On October 21, 2003, the court conducted respondent's first six-month permanency review and reviewed respondent's service plans and progress reports. Respondent's counsel asserted that respondent had remained drug-free and had completed the customary three-month criminal justice inpatient drug treatment program. Counsel conceded that respondent left the program despite a recommendation that he remain two weeks longer. Counsel asserted that respondent obtained a sponsor and often spent time at his church, participating as the lead singer in the choir. The assistant State's Attorney argued that respondent had failed to complete the recommended treatment. Several lab reports indicated that respondent had tested positive for cocaine at least once per month from January 2003 to May 2003.
Cali Broege, a Catholic Charities evaluator assigned to the case by the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), rated respondent's progress as unsatisfactory because he left the treatment program prematurely after he was advised to remain there. Respondent could not complete the outpatient portion of the program because he failed to complete the inpatient portion. Moreover, respondent failed to verify his contact with his sponsor and his participation in AA/NA meetings. Respondent's home was unfit for Tiffany because respondent was living with a woman named "Goldie," an alcoholic paramour who had allegedly sexually abused children. Respondent was attempting to obtain suitable public housing at the time the report was prepared. Respondent was still unemployed, had not maintained a legal means of support, and declined Broege's offer to drive him to businesses to inquire about job openings.
The trial court changed the permanency goal from return home to substitute care pending court determination of parental rights. The court found that respondent had not made reasonable efforts or progress, because he failed to complete the recommended drug treatment program.
On November 14, 2003, the State petitioned to terminate respondent's parental rights. The court scheduled an unfitness hearing for February 25, 2004, but continued the matter because respondent failed to appear. On March 30, 2004, the court held the unfitness hearing, at which respondent testified that he missed one visit with Tiffany as well as the February 25 hearing because he was with his stepmother, who had suffered a stroke. Respondent asserted that he called Broege frequently regarding visitation and other issues. He did not submit to two drug tests, in February and March 2004, and knew that he would be charged with failing them. Respondent denied that he intentionally skipped the tests because he knew they would be positive. Respondent completed a 90-day program in Rosecrance, a substance abuse treatment facility, but left on March 7, 2004, despite another recommendation by his treatment providers that he remain two weeks longer. Respondent was arrested on a felony drug charge in August 2003. He also stopped attending AA/NA meetings in November 2003 and failed to verify his prior participation. Respondent stated that he created a relapse prevention plan as recommended; he attended church and spent time with his sponsor and others who did not consume alcohol.
Respondent admitted that he had lived with Goldie for nine months and had learned of her problems during the previous year. Respondent was searching for new housing because he knew that his home was unsuitable for Tiffany, but he insisted that Broege told him that his unemployment would not prevent him from gaining custody of his daughter. Respondent recalled missing only two of his weekly visits with Tiffany since learning that he was her father. Respondent left Rosecrance prematurely because he believed that illegal drugs were entering the facility and would jeopardize his recovery and parenting efforts. Respondent's status as a convicted felon hindered him from obtaining a job and public housing. Respondent admitted drinking beer but insisted that he had not used cocaine for a year.
Kim Burks, a Catholic Charities caseworker, testified that she saw respondent and Goldie at a Burger King restaurant in Rockford on a date that respondent had testified to being with his ill stepmother in Chicago. Burks supervised respondent's visitation with Tiffany from January 2003 through February 2004. During the first month of visitation, respondent and Tiffany were very quiet, but Tiffany later became very comfortable with respondent. Respondent fed Tiffany the snacks and bottle that her foster parents prepared. He also handled her appropriately when she cried and gave her age-appropriate Christmas gifts. Respondent's parenting skills improved and he did not miss any visits while Burks served as his caseworker.
Broege testified that she had been providing case management services for the family since August 8, 2002, and that she had reviewed respondent's progress with the most recent service plan, which ran from March to October 2003. Broege rated respondent as unsatisfactory because he ended the substance abuse treatment portion of the plan two weeks prematurely. Moreover, his treatment providers at Rosecrance reported that he did not take responsibility for his substance abuse and had not developed a relapse recovery plan. His counselors were especially concerned because respondent had previously relapsed after a two-year period of sobriety. Although respondent received strong support from members of his church, he failed to confirm his participation with AA/NA. Broege thought it was unusual that respondent had dropped out of contact with her during the past month.
The court continued the unfitness hearing to May 14, 2004, at which time respondent testified that he had been placed in the Winnebago County jail for failing to inform his probation officer that he was living at the Rosecrance treatment center. Respondent initially stated that he had not spoken with his probation officer since August 2002 even though he knew he was required to report monthly. Respondent subsequently indicated that he met with his probation officer in February 2003, before entering Rosecrance three months later. Respondent and his probation officer each testified that respondent was unemployed and had not completed the public service work that was a term of his probation. Finally, respondent testified that his probation requirements often conflicted with his DCFS service plan requirements and that his probation officer was unsympathetic and uncooperative.
The trial court found that respondent was unfit for failing to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern, or responsibility toward's Tiffany's welfare (see 750 ILCS 50/1(D)(b) (West 2002)) and for failing to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis for her removal or to make reasonable progress toward her return home within nine months of the adjudication of neglect (see 750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m) (West 2002)). After summarizing the evidence presented, the court noted that respondent was ...