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In re Tajannah O.

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Fourth Division

April 24, 2014

In re TAJANNAH O., a Minor;
Lishon M., Respondent-Appellant) (The People of the State of Illinois, Petitioner-Appellee,

Page 1259

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 08 JA 1116. The Honorable Maureen Delehanty, Judge Presiding.



In an appeal from the termination of respondent mother's parental rights where respondent did not challenge the trial court's finding that she was unfit based on her numerous failures to deal with her substance abuse problems, but she did argue that the trial court should have considered other options, such as long-term foster care or guardianship, the appellate court rejected respondent's argument and held that the termination of her parental rights was not contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence and that there was sufficient evidence to support the finding that termination was in her child's best interest.

For APPELLANT: Dean N. Bastounes and Thomas A. Gibbons, Chicago, IL.

For APPELLEE: Robert F. Harris, Kass A. Plain and Christopher Williams, OFFICE OF THE COOK COUNTY PUBLIC GUARDIAN, Chicago, IL.

JUSTICE FITZGERALD SMITH delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Howse and Justice Lavin concurred in the judgment and opinion.



Page 1260

[¶1] Respondent-appellant Lishon M. (respondent) appeals from the trial court's order in the instant cause terminating her parental rights over Tajannah O., her minor child. She contends that it was not in the minor's best interest to terminate her parental rights where she and the minor have an extraordinary bond, she has daily contact with the minor and no witness testified that this contact was harmful or should be diminished. She asks that we vacate the termination order against her and for any other appropriate relief. For his part, Tajannah's public guardian has filed an appellee's brief in this cause, which the State has adopted. For the following reasons, we affirm the trial court's termination order.


[¶3] We note at the outset that respondent does not challenge the trial court's finding of unfitness against her on appeal. Rather, she focuses solely on the circumstances surrounding the court's best interest determination. As such, while we will discuss some aspects of the unfitness hearing that took place, our focus, like hers, will center on the best interest hearing.

[¶4] Tajannah was born on May 7, 2002, to respondent and MacCaren W.[1] The situation was brought to the attention of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) in December 2008, when Tajannah was six years old. A motion for temporary custody and petition for adjudication of wardship alleged that respondent had two other children in DCFS custody, that one of them was born exposed to illegal drugs, that respondent was a heroin user, and, principally, that she had failed to comply with a safety plan that had been issued to her. Although the trial court placed Tajannah in the temporary custody of DCFS, it entered an order of protective supervision allowing her to remain in respondent's care as long as respondent stayed at an inpatient drug treatment program. However, soon thereafter, it was discovered that the drug treatment program discharged respondent due to noncompliance with its rules. Accordingly, in January 2009, the trial court vacated the order of protection and placed Tajannah in the nonrelative foster home of Janice M.[2]

[¶5] During the next several months, the cause was revisited by the trial court multiple times, as propelled by various motions and hearings. Respondent sought

Page 1261

visitation and a return of custody, submitting evidence that she had completed a drug treatment program, parenting classes and individual therapy. The trial court entered a goal of return home within 12 months. Then, on June 4, 2010, the trial court allowed Tajannah's return to respondent under a second order of protective supervision. However, days later, on June 9, 2010, the public guardian filed an emergency motion to vacate the trial court's order, alleging that, after respondent picked Tajannah up for an overnight visit, she was arrested the next morning for driving under the influence while driving Tajannah to school. Tajannah was returned to foster care with Janice M., and respondent pled guilty to DUI.

[¶6] Despite this, over the next few months, the trial court retained its goal of return home and, by January 2011, had granted respondent unsupervised visits with Tajannah, as respondent had reengaged in services. In June 2011, the trial court entered a modified dispositional order returning Tajannah to respondent's custody as long as she continued participating in services. However, on June 16, 2011, respondent was arrested for felony possession of heroin and was incarcerated. Tajannah's whereabouts were unknown; she was eventually found by DCFS at the apartment of respondent's friend, where respondent had left her for an overnight visit. Tajannah was again returned to the foster home of Janice M., under DCFS guardianship. Respondent pled guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison. In February 2012, the trial court changed its permanency goal to termination of parental rights.

[¶7] Accordingly, in June 2012, the State filed a supplemental petition in pursuit of the termination of respondent's parental rights citing, as the grounds for respondent's unfitness, the failure to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern or responsibility toward Tajannah (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(b) (West 2012)), depravity (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(i) (West 2012)), and the failure to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions which were the basis for removal and/or the failure to make reasonable progress toward return within nine months from the adjudication of neglect or within any nine month period thereafter (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m) (West 2012)).[3] At the ensuing fitness hearing, the State introduced into evidence respondent's criminal history, which, in addition to the felony drug charges for which she was incarcerated at the time of this hearing, included a 1995 felony conviction from manufacturing/delivery of a look-alike substance, a 1998 felony conviction for retail theft, a 2000 felony conviction for retail theft under the name Lisa H., a 2000 felony conviction for retail theft under the name Ursula M., a 2002 felony conviction for retail theft, a 2009 felony conviction for retail theft, a 2011 felony conviction for retail theft, and the 2011 conviction for DUI.

[¶8] Several witnesses testified at the hearing. Briefly, Rachel Hoyt, a supervisor at Lutheran Social Services of Illinois who was in charge of Tajannah's case, testified that after the first failed reunification attempt in July 2010, respondent

Page 1262

was determined to need inpatient substance abuse treatment, individual and family therapy and urine drops. She completed these and tested negative for drugs, but when Tajannah was returned to her, respondent left her with friends and was arrested on drug charges. Hoyt acknowledged that respondent visited monthly with Tajannah while in prison, consistently sent her letters and talked to her on the phone. However, respondent was reassessed and was recommended to repeat substance abuse services and therapy, and she never completed these because she was in prison. Similarly, Megan Pool, Tajannah's family caseworker, testified that when Tajannah was returned home to respondent, she (Pool) tried several times to visit them but respondent was always unavailable. Pool then learned that respondent had been incarcerated; she helped locate Tajannah and returned her to foster care. She acknowledged that respondent did complete some services while in prison, but not those recommended in her service plans. She also acknowledged that respondent visited with Tajannah monthly and called her consistently when she could; their contact was always positive. Senior supervisor Molly Kim testified in corroboration of Hoyt and Pool.

[¶9] For her part, respondent presented several exhibits demonstrating her past service plans and certificates from services she had completed. In addition, respondent testified on her own behalf, stating that she had been dealing with a drug abuse problem for many years. In 2008, when DCFS first took custody of Tajannah, she had relapsed but then entered a drug treatment facility, whereupon Tajannah was allowed to stay with her. However, she relapsed and lost custody of Tajannah. Tajannah was returned to her in June 2010, but she lost custody again when she relapsed and was arrested for DUI while Tajannah was in the car. Tajannah was returned a third time in June 2011, but respondent relapsed again when she dropped her off at a friend's house and was later arrested. Respondent testified that through all this, however, she consistently visited Tajannah, wrote letters to her and spoke to her on the phone. She also participated in services offered in prison. She acknowledged that these failed reunification attempts had a negative impact on Tajannah. Respondent also presented the testimony of Steve R., her boyfriend, who testified that he was an educational consultant and had provided financial and emotional support to respondent. He believed respondent and Tajannah were bonded and had a great relationship. Mark Sanders, a licensed clinical social worker and certified drug counselor, testified that several factors made it likely that respondent would be able to maintain her sobriety and adequately parent Tajannah, although he admitted that, in the past, regaining custody of Tajannah was a relapse trigger for respondent.

[¶10] At the close of the hearing, the trial court found respondent unfit on all three grounds presented.[4] In its lengthy colloquy, the court recited all the facts presented and acknowledged, several times, all the positive aspects of respondent's cause, including the many services she completed, her consistent contact with Tajannah and the bond they share. In fact, the court acknowledged that " [e]very witness testified to her love and affection and appropriate bond for her ...

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