Appeal from the Circuit Court of Winnebago County. Nos. 11-JA-123 11-JA-124 11-JA-125 Honorable Mary Linn Green, Judge, Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Hutchinson
JUSTICE HUTCHINSON delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justice Hudson concurred in the judgment and opinion.
Justice Birkett dissented, with opinion.
¶ 1 In 2011, the State filed neglect petitions on behalf of A.L., B.C., and E.C. (collectively, the minors). Thereafter, respondent, Lasaysha L., stipulated to an amended count of neglect in each petition, and the State dismissed the remaining counts in the petitions. Pursuant to respondent's factual stipulation, the trial court adjudicated the minors neglected, and the matter proceeded to a dispositional hearing. After that hearing, during which evidence was presented, the trial court found respondent dispositionally unfit and ordered guardianship and custody of the minors with the Department of Children and Family Services (the Department). Respondent appeals, contending that: (1) the trial court's adjudication of neglect, based only on her stipulation, violated her right to due process and was against the manifest weight of the evidence; and (2) the trial court's subsequent dispositional order was improper absent a valid finding of neglect. We affirm.
¶ 3 Only the facts relevant for the purposes of this appeal will be set forth below. Respondent is the biological mother of the minors. Respondent was married to Bill L., A.L.'s biological father and E.C.'s and B.C.'s stepfather. Bill L. was deceased when the State filed its petitions. Brian C. is the biological father of E.C. and B.C., but he was never married to respondent and is not a party to this litigation. When the petitions were filed, respondent was residing with the minors in Tennessee.
¶ 4 On April 18, 2011, the State filed its neglect petitions, which were substantively similar with respect to each minor. Count I alleged that respondent left the minors in the care of Bill L., placing them at risk of harm. Count II alleged that drugs and drug paraphernalia were found in the home and were easily accessible to the minors. Count III alleged that the minors were subject to an injurious environment because respondent had a substance abuse problem that prevented her from properly parenting, placing the minors at risk of harm. During the initial hearing, the trial court appointed counsel and admonished respondent regarding her rights and the State's burden of proof. Specifically, the trial court admonished respondent that the State bore the burden to prove the allegations by a preponderance of the evidence. The trial court further advised respondent that the minors could be made wards of the court if the State met its burden and the trial court concluded that making the minors wards of the court was in the best interests of the minors.
¶ 5 During a pretrial conference on July 22, 2011, the trial court was advised that respondent had recently moved to Tennessee with the minors and that, on July 7, 2011, the trial court judge in a related family court proceeding gave temporary physical custody of B.C. and E.C. to Sandra F., their paternal grandmother. The trial court in this case conducted a hearing later that day, with respondent and her attorney present. The guardian ad litem from the related family court proceeding appeared and advised the trial court that she prepared a report. The trial court acknowledged that it "received [the report]" and "reviewed it." The State argued that respondent's removal of the minors from Illinois to Tennessee was "inappropriate." In support, the State noted that there was a police report indicating that respondent was charged with driving under the influence in 2009. The State raised other concerns, including that drugs and drug paraphernalia were found in the home, and stated that it would defer to the guardian ad litem in the family court proceeding to express her concerns. The State argued that the minors should be returned to Illinois. Respondent's counsel objected to the minors being returned to Illinois and advised the trial court that respondent had a residence in Tennessee.
¶ 6 Subsequently, the trial court asked the guardian ad litem from the family court proceeding to comment on whether the minors should be returned from Tennessee. The guardian ad litem advised the trial court that she had "done quite a bit of investigation on this case" and that "[t]here are several incidents." The guardian ad litem informed the trial court of a police report indicating that respondent had pulled a knife on Bill L. She also noted that Bill L. "died of a massive drug overdose, which is what I believe instigated this proceeding." The guardian ad litem further advised that, in November 2010, respondent picked up the minors from school while she was allegedly intoxicated and threatened to harm the supervisors at the after-school program. Respondent had to be restrained during the incident and was arrested for resisting arrest. Thereafter, respondent's counsel and the trial court asked the guardian ad litem a series of questions, including whether she had met with respondent or the minors. The guardian ad litem responded that she spoke with the minors and respondent by phone but was unable to meet with the minors. Finally, the trial court asked respondent who was caring for the minors in Tennessee. Respondent replied that her fiance was caring for the minors so she could attend the proceeding and that her landlord in Tennessee was also helping care for them.
¶ 7 At that point in the proceedings, the State moved for a shelter-care hearing. The State argued that it was necessary for the trial court to consider the evidence, which would include the report and testimony from the guardian ad litem from the family court proceeding. The State argued "[o]bviously, [the parties] are stating their positions, but all of the positions are proffers and setups of what we think the evidence will show." The trial court granted the State's motion for a shelter-care hearing. After a short recess, the trial court accepted an agreement between the parties that respondent would bring the minors back from Tennessee and that the minors would reside with Sandy L., A.L.'s paternal grandmother, during the pendency of the proceedings.
¶ 8 On August 10, 2011, the State amended count I of each petition. A.L.'s petition was amended to allege that Bill L. had a substance abuse problem that impaired his parenting, placing the minor at risk. E.C. and B.C.'s petitions were similarly amended. At a hearing held on that day, respondent factually stipulated to the amended count I of each petition and, pursuant to an agreement, the State dismissed the remaining counts of the petitions. During the hearing, respondent's attorney advised the trial court that he was "on the same page as the State." The trial court then found the minors neglected, stating:
"Pursuant to the agreement recited by the State, agreed to by the parties, the [trial court] adjudicates the minors to be neglected pursuant to [respondent's] stipulation to [a]mended
[c]ount 1 of the [petitions]."
The trial court's written orders provided that the minors were adjudicated neglected pursuant to the "factual stipulation by mother to [c]ount 1 as amended."
¶ 9 The matter proceeded to a dispositional hearing on August 16, 2011, and both parties were afforded the opportunity to submit evidence. The record reflects that respondent argued at that hearing that it was in the minors' best interests that guardianship and custody remained with her. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court found respondent dispositionally unfit and ordered guardianship and custody with the Department. Respondent timely appeals.
¶ 11 A. Due Process and Finding of Neglect
¶ 12 Respondent presents the first issue on appeal as "[w]hether there was sufficient factual evidence and due process to uphold [respondent's] stipulation and the trial court's adjudication of neglect as to the [minors] on August 10, 2011." With respect to due process, respondent argues that her stipulation was not made knowingly and voluntarily, because the trial court did not inquire as to the factual basis of that stipulation before accepting it. Respondent further argues that the trial court's finding of neglect was against the manifest weight of the evidence because Bill L. was deceased when the State filed the petitions.
¶ 13 The Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (the Act) provides a step-by-step framework for determining whether a minor shall be removed from his or her parents and made a ward of the state. 705 ILCS 405/1-1 to 7-1 (West 2010). Following a temporary custody hearing pursuant to section 2-10 of the Act (705 ILCS 405/2-10 (West 2010)), the trial court must make a finding of abuse, neglect, or dependence before it conducts an adjudication of wardship. Section 2-3(1)(b) of the Act defines a "neglected minor" to include any minor under 18 years of age whose environment is injurious to his or her welfare. 705 ILCS 405/2-3(1)(b) (West 2010). While our supreme court has noted that the term "injurious environment" is an "amorphous concept that cannot be defined with particularity," it generally includes "the breach of a parent's duty to ensure a 'safe and nurturing shelter' for his or her children." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) In re Arthur H., 212 Ill. 2d 441, 463 (2004) (quoting In re N.B., 191 Ill. 2d 338, 346 (2000)). Section 2-21(1) of the Act provides that, if the court finds that the minor is abused, neglected, or dependent:
"[T]he court shall then determine and put in writing the factual basis supporting that determination, and specify, to the extent possible, the acts or omissions or both of each parent, guardian, or legal custodian that form the basis of the court's findings." 705 ILCS 405/2-21(1) (West 2010).
Because of the "fact-driven nature" of neglect and injurious environmental rulings, a reviewing court will reverse a finding of neglect only if it is against the manifest weight of the evidence. In re N.B., 191 Ill. 2d at 346. A ruling is against the manifest weight of the evidence only if the opposite conclusion is clearly evident; and given the delicacy and difficulty of child custody determinations, the discretion vested with the trial court is even greater than in an ordinary appeal applying the manifest-weight-of-the-evidence standard of review. In re R.S., 382 Ill. App. 3d 453, 459-60 (2008).
¶ 14 In addition, the United States Supreme Court and Illinois courts have recognized parents' liberty interest in raising their children. Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65 (2000); In re M.H., 196 Ill. 2d 356, 362 (2001). The Troxel Court, after discussing extensive precedent, opined that "it
cannot now be doubted that the [d]ue [p]rocess [c]lause of the [f]ourteenth [a]mendment protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children." Troxel, 530 U.S. at 66. Accordingly, because a termination proceeding seeks to end the parent's fundamental liberty interest, the procedures involved must meet the requisites of the due process clause. In re M.H., 196 Ill. 2d at 363 (citing Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 762 (1982)). The three factors to be considered in determining what due process requires are (1) the private interest affected by the official action; (2) the risk of an erroneous deprivation of the interest through the procedures used, and the probable value of additional or substitute procedural safeguards; and (3) the government's interest, including the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute safeguards would entail. In re M.H., 196 Ill. 2d at 363 (citing Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 335 (1976)).
¶ 15 Guided by these principles, we first address respondent's argument that she was denied due process. This argument requires us to determine whether due process required the trial court to ensure the existence of a factual basis before accepting respondent's stipulation to an allegation of neglect. Respondent relies primarily on our supreme court's decision in In re M.H., 196 Ill. 2d 356. In that case, the State filed a petition for termination of parental rights with respect to the respondent's two children who, thereafter, were removed from the respondent's custody. Id. at 358. After the minors were adjudicated neglected, the State filed a supplemental petition for termination of the respondent's parental rights, alleging in part that the respondent failed to make reasonable progress toward the return of the minors to her within 12 months after the adjudication of neglect. Id. at 358-59. During the termination hearing, the State informed the trial court that the respondent would admit that she failed to make reasonable progress toward the return of the minors. The trial court asked the respondent whether she understood her right to have the State prove by clear and convincing evidence that she was unfit, and it asked the respondent if she wanted a moment to confer with her attorney before making her admission. Id. at 359-60. After the respondent's verbal agreement, the trial court accepted her admission of unfitness. Id. at 360. Following an additional hearing, the trial court found that it was in the minors' best interests that the respondent's parental rights be terminated. Id.
¶ 16 On appeal, the appellate court vacated the order terminating the respondent's parental rights, and the supreme court affirmed. Id. at 368. Relying on Mathews, 424 U.S. 319, our supreme court noted that the interest of parental care of a child is fundamental and will not be terminated lightly. In re M.H., 196 Ill. 2d at 365. Therefore, before a child can be made a ward of the court, the State must prove abuse, neglect, or dependence by a preponderance of the evidence; and before a court can adjudicate a parent unfit and terminate parental rights, the State must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the parent is unfit. Id. The supreme court noted that, because an admission of neglect must be knowing and voluntary, an admission of unfitness must also be knowing and voluntary. Id. at 366. The supreme court concluded that there must be a factual basis for an admission of unfitness, because it "allows the parent to hear the State describe the alleged facts relating to fitness and give the parent an opportunity to challenge or correct any facts that are disputed." Id. at 367. The supreme court emphasized that, without a factual basis, there is a danger that the parent understands the State's allegations but does not realize that his or her conduct does not fit within those allegations. Id. Therefore, if a parent is not fully informed of the factual basis ...