Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. Honorable Rena Marie Van Tine Judge Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Quinn
PRESIDING JUSTICE QUINN delivered the opinion of the court: The Cook County Public Guardian appeals the judgment of the circuit court terminating the parental rights of Martha R. and Thomas G., the natural parents of nine-year old Deandre D.*fn1
On appeal, the public guardian argues that the trial court erred in finding that termination of parental rights was in Deandre's best interests. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the circuit court.
Deandre's family came to the attention of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) in April 2005, when Deandre's mother, Martha R. gave birth to a son, Jonathon T., who tested positive for intrauterine cocaine exposure. Martha R., who also tested positive for cocaine, admitted to using cocaine and marijuana about one week before giving birth. Deandre, Jonathon T., and their half-sister Xiommy R. were placed under a safety plan in the home of a maternal uncle and his wife. However, the natural parents violated the safety plan by taking the children out of the maternal uncle's care without DCFS permission. It appears that the family received DCFS services from May 2005 until June 2006, but were then unable to be located. The family again came to the attention of DCFS in January 2007, when Martha R. gave birth to her fourth child, Alexander E., who also tested positive for cocaine. Alexander E. was placed in foster care, but Martha R. was not forthcoming about the whereabouts of her other three children.
On January 25, 2007, the State filed a petition for adjudication of wardship and a motion for temporary custody of the children and issued a child protection warrant since the children's location was unknown. Approximately five months later, in May 2007, Deandre's 17-year-old maternal aunt brought Deandre and Xiommy to DCFS. The aunt, who was pregnant and a runaway ward, said that she had been caring for the two children for about two weeks but could no longer do so. An adjudication hearing was held on July 10, 2007, and the court found that Deandre was in an injurious environment and at a substantial risk for physical injury as a result of abuse or neglect inflicted upon him by a parent. The court also entered a disposition order adjudicating Deandre a ward of the court and placing him under DCFS guardianship, because his parents were unfit and unable or unwilling to care for him. After a permanency planning hearing on July 20, 2007, the court entered a goal of return home pending a status hearing. At that time, Deandre had no contact with his parents and his parents's whereabouts were unknown.
A permanency planning hearing was held on June 6, 2008, at which Martha R., who was then in custody in Cook County jail, appeared. Afterwards, the court entered a permanency goal of substitute care pending court determination on termination of parental rights based on its finding that the natural mother had not made substantial progress toward reunification. On December 29, 2008, the State filed a supplemental petition for appointment of a guardian with right to consent to adoption. The petition alleged that Deandre's parents were unfit in that they (1) failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern or responsibility for Deandre's welfare (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(b) (West 2006)); (2) deserted Deandre for more than three months preceding the commencement of the termination proceedings (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(c) (West 2006)); (3) were habitual drunkards and/or addicted to drugs other than those prescribed by a physician for at least one year immediately prior to commencement of the termination proceedings (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(k) (West 2006)); (4) failed to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions which were the basis for Deandre's removal from them and/or failed to make reasonable progress toward his return to within nine months after the adjudication of neglect or abuse (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m)(ii)(West 2006)) or within any nine-month period after the finding of adjudication (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m)(iii)(West 2006)); and (5) evidenced an intent to forego parental rights by failing for a period of 12 months to visit Deandre, communicate with Deandre or DCFS, although able to do so, or maintain contact with or plan for the future of Deandre, although physically able to do so. The petition also alleged that terminating parental rights and appointing a guardian with the right to consent to adoption would be in Deandre's best interest because he had resided with his foster parent since October 2008, and she wanted to adopt him.
A third permanency hearing was held on January 8, 2009, after which the permanency goal remained substitute care pending court determination on termination of parental rights.
In the meantime, on May 11, 2007, DCFS placed Deandre and Xiommy in the same foster home where Alexander was residing. However, in October 2008, all three children were removed from that home because there were allegations of corporal punishment, Alexander, an infant, had suffered a fractured arm, and the foster parent would not take Xiommy to her counseling sessions. DCFS then placed Deandre, Xiommy, and Alexander in a second foster home with Heather Camren. Shortly thereafter, Camren reported to DCFS that Deandre kicked walls, banged his head, and hit her and a daycare worker. In January 2009, Deandre was psychiatrically hospitalized for a week after becoming aggressive toward Camren and his siblings. He was hospitalized again for two weeks in May 2009 after threatening to choke himself. In August 2009, Camren asked DCFS to remove Deandre from her home. She reported that he used her cell phone without permission, stayed up all night, took items that did not belong to him at church, and kicked her in the groin. On August 12, 2009, Deandre was hospitalized in Streamwood Behavioral Health Care Center for observation, where he remained until October 28, 2009. DCFS then placed Deandre at Hephzibah Children's Home, a residential treatment facility, where he currently resides.
On May 10, 2010, the trial court held a hearing on the State's supplemental petition for appointment of a guardian with right to consent to adoption for Deandre and his half-sister Xiommy. Neither of Deandre's parents was present at the hearing.*fn2 The court's hearing was bifurcated, with the court first addressing the State's allegations that Deandre's parents were unfit. Prior to hearing evidence, the trial court noted that the guardian ad litem had requested a continuance because Deandre was not yet in a pre-adoptive placement and there was "no real timeline on when he is going to a preadoptive placement." The court denied this request finding that "it would not be in Deandre's best interest to continue the case *** [because] it would ultimately just delay his permanency rather than assist with it." The trial court also granted the State's request to withdraw ground (k) of the petition, alleging that Deandre's parents were unfit because they were habitual drunkards and/or addicted to drugs.
At the fitness hearing, the State presented as a witness Lillia Reyes,
a caseworker from Child Link, an adoption and foster care services
agency. Reyes testified that she developed service plans for Deandre's
parents in June 2007, December 2007, June 2008, December 2008, and
June 2009, listing tasks and services Deandre's parents needed to
complete in order to regain custody of Deandre, including drug
treatment and counseling and having unsupervised visits with him.
Reyes testified that with each service plan, the parents' rating on
their progress toward that goal was unsatisfactory. She further
testified that since June 2007, the parents' whereabouts were unknown
until Martha R. was found in Cook County jail in January 2008,
awaiting trial on a charge of delivery of a controlled substance near
a school. Reyes testified that she spoke with Martha R. in February
2008 regarding services she would need to complete in order to
reunified with her son, but she did not complete any of
those services. Reyes testified that Martha R. was released from jail
in August 2008 and had a few visits with Deandre, but had no visits
between September 29, 2008, and December 29, 2008, the date the State
filed its petition to terminate parental rights. She also stated that
there was no contact between Deandre and his father between June 2008
and December 2008. After hearing from Reyes, the trial court found
that the State had met its burden of proof by clear and convincing
evidence in showing that Deandre's parents were unfit pursuant to
sections 1(D)(b), (D)(c)(D)(d) and (D)(m) of the Adoption Act (750
ILCS 50/1(D)(b), (D)(c), (D)(d), (D)(m)(West 2006)) , since they had
not maintained any degree of interest, concern, or responsibility as
to the child's welfare.
The trial court then proceeded to determine whether termination of parental rights was in Deandre's best interests. Prior to commencing the hearing, the trial court again noted the guardian ad litem's pending motion for a continuance of Deandre's case but stated that "in light of the new law where the parents can come back in and basically vacate a termination order in the trial court, I think it [sic] would be hard pressed to continue the case because I think that there is a better chance of Deandre actually getting adopted if the parental rights--if it was shown that it was in his best interests to terminate parental rights. However, I don't know what the evidence is, so I am keeping an open mind as to whether to continue the case in the midst of the best interest."
At the best interest hearing the State's first witness was Heather Camren, Deandre's former foster parent, who testified about her desire to adopt Deandre's half-sister, Xiommy. While testifying about activities she engages in with Xiommy, Camren talked about Xiommy's relationship with Deandre, stating that Xiommy visits Deandre on Tuesday evenings and that the two "are very, very close." The State's next witness was Sandra Hess, clinical coordinator at Hephzibah Children's Association and supervisor of Deandre's caseworker, Matt Connolly, who was on vacation and could not be in court. Hess testified that Deandre had resided at Hephizibah for a little over six months and had been involved in three incidents at school that resulted in "unusual incident reports." First, Hess said that on February 18, 2010, Deandre became overwhelmed in class, was running around, and needed to be removed from the classroom by a behavioral interventionist. Subsequently, Deandre "needed to be contained because he was trashing [the behavioral interventionist's] room." On March 17, 2010, Deandre again became overwhelmed at school, began to act aggressively and had to be removed by the behavioral interventionist. On April 12, 2010, after a similar incident, Deandre was suspended from school.
Hess stated that Deandre was undergoing a psychological evaluation, which was going slowly because Deandre would become overwhelmed and could only work with the evaluator for about 30 minutes at a time. Hess said that although Deandre had previously been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the psychologist thought that he more likely had posttraumatic stress disorder but was reluctant to give a diagnosis until he completed all of the testing, which would likely take two more weeks. Hess said that it was unclear whether Deandre would return to Heather Camren's home in the future because, "at this point, I can see that we wouldn't want to place Deandre with younger children, and she does have younger children in the home. It doesn't--and they visit regularly. They have a lot of contact." Upon further questioning from the State about returning Deandre to Camren's home if he made significant progress, Hess said, "I'm not sure that would be possible. That would be good that he could--we hope that he would make tremendous progress. Often what we see is that when the siblings are together, they enact the abusive situations they've had. He needs a good deal more capacity to be aware of his insights. You know, he doesn't know how he's feeling." When asked if Deandre should live with his half-sister, Xiommy, Hess said "they should always have contact, but I don't know that they should live together. Really, right now with Deandre around younger children, he's very explosive, he gets very regressed, he's overwhelmed, he gets angry at them, and he gets aggressive with them." She further stated that Deandre would probably need placement in a residential setting for one or two years but would not need a residential program into adulthood and would likely go to foster care within the next three years.
In response to a question from the guardian ad litem about whether termination of parental rights would have an adverse effect on Deandre, Hess said, "Oh, wow, the--I have to make an opinion here on this one, about whether he's better off with or without. I'll tell you he feels abandoned either way. He doesn't feel like people want him. He doesn't--he speaks to his own mother being dead, which is kind of his way to explain why she hasn't wanted to see him. *** [H]e's obviously not going to live with either parent, and that's--he hasn't even had contact with them, so... *** I can say *** we'll make it okay for Deandre whatever the decision is. I think that either way there's therapeutic work to do, and we'll do it." Hess also stated that Deandre is very close to his siblings and that his paternal grandmother and uncle are very important to him. With regard to Deandre's paternal uncle, Hess stated, "[i]t's possible there's potential placement there. But they have been involved sporadically over the years, so we kind of want to be sure that they could be a family for him. ***" Hess said that Deandre's caseworker had been meeting with Deandre's paternal uncle, who, along with Deandre's paternal grandmother, would like to be identified as people to visit him and maintain family connections with him. She said that in order for them to be considered as a potential adoptive placement, they would need to first become licensed foster parents, which would require specialized training, but that they had not yet come forward to do so. Further, she said that there is some concern with placing Deandre with his paternal uncle because the uncle has a two-year-old child.
The State rested, and the public guardian renewed its motion for a continuance of the best interest hearing for Deandre. In response, the court stated that "I find it would not be in the best interest of Deandre to continue the case any further for a best interest hearing in that I believe his best chance for actually getting adopted would be if, in fact, his parental rights were terminated sooner rather than later. So at this point, the motion is denied." After hearing arguments from the State and the guardian ad litem, the trial court first found that it was in Xiommy's best interest to terminate parental rights because ...