from the Circuit Court of Winnebago County No. 14-JA-264
Honorable Mary Linn Green, Judge, Presiding.
JUSTICE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.
Presiding Justice Hudson and Justice Burke concurred in the
judgment and opinion.
1 The trial court found respondent, Merrick R., to be an
unfit parent and ruled that it was in the best interest of
his minor child, Keyon R., to terminate his parental rights.
Respondent appeals only the unfitness finding. For the reasons
that follow, we reverse.
2 I. BACKGROUND
3 We include those facts necessary to understand the
proceedings. We will augment the facts as needed in the
"Analysis" section of this opinion. Keyon, born on
October 26, 2006, was adjudicated a neglected minor on
November 12, 2014. On March 4, 2015, the Illinois Department
of Children and Family Services (DCFS) was granted custody
and guardianship of Keyon, and the court ordered respondent,
who was incarcerated, to cooperate with the services that
DCFS implemented on respondent's behalf. However, DCFS,
through its contracting agency Lutheran Social Services of
Illinois (LSSI), never assessed respondent for services or
provided him with a service plan. The agency did not consider
returning Keyon to respondent a viable option, because of
respondent's convictions of a sexual offense involving
bodily harm. The agency also did not offer respondent any
visitation with Keyon. The court, following various
permanency review hearings, found that respondent made
"unsatisfactory progress" in following
"service plans." On February 8, 2016, the court
found that respondent failed to make "reasonable
progress" toward Keyon's return. On March 24, 2016,
the State filed a motion to terminate respondent's
parental rights on the following grounds: he failed to
maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern, or
responsibility as to Keyon's welfare (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(b)
(West 2014)) (count I); he failed to make reasonable progress
toward Keyon's return to him during any nine-month period
after the adjudication of neglect (11/12/14 to 8/12/15 and/or
6/24/15 to 3/24/16) (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m)(ii) (West 2014))
(count III); and he was depraved (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(i)
(West 2014)) (count IV). Respondent remained incarcerated
throughout these proceedings.
4 At the hearing on the State's motion to terminate
parental rights, Gina Gauthier, a child welfare specialist
with LSSI, testified that Keyon was removed from his
mother's custody in July 2014 because two of her other
children (by fathers other than respondent) had been placed
5 Gauthier testified that LSSI did not assess or recommend
any services for respondent, "due to the nature of his
crime." Gauthier identified the crime as "sexual
assault with bodily harm, " but she was unsure whether
the victim was a child or an adult.
6 Gauthier testified that respondent stayed in contact with
her and asked about Keyon. She testified that, if he were not
incarcerated, she would not consider allowing him to have
unsupervised visits with Keyon "due to the nature of his
crime." For the same reason, she stated that respondent
would not be a suitable placement for Keyon. Gauthier
explained that LSSI never explored the possibility of
returning Keyon to respondent, "because we did not see
[respondent] as a viable return home [sic]."
Similarly, LSSI did not offer respondent the opportunity to
participate in team meetings or other "staffings."
Gauthier acknowledged that respondent's father provided
Keyon with clothing and school supplies.
7 On cross-examination, Gauthier admitted that the agency
made no effort to facilitate visits between Keyon and
respondent, due to the distance involved, although she did
not know where respondent was incarcerated. Gauthier
testified that she never offered respondent visitation,
despite respondent's expressed desire for such visits.
8 Gauthier testified that she spoke with respondent soon
before he was scheduled to be paroled but that she then lost
contact with him. According to Gauthier, respondent's
father told her that "they were not able to find
suitable housing [for respondent] and so he remained
9 The State offered no further testimony, but it submitted
into evidence DCFS's "indicated packet." The
State also submitted into evidence, over respondent's
objection, People's exhibits 6 and 7, which were
certified paper copies of the electronic records reflecting
respondent's convictions of aggravated criminal sexual
abuse in Cook County, Illinois. The State then rested. The
court took judicial notice of the neglect petition, the order
granting temporary custody of Keyon to DCFS, the order
adjudicating Keyon a neglected minor, the dispositional
order, and the order following the February 8, 2016,
permanency review hearing, with the finding that respondent
had not made reasonable progress toward Keyon's return.
10 Respondent testified that he was currently incarcerated at
the Centralia Correctional Center, although he was due to be
paroled in a few days. He was originally incarcerated in
2007, released on probation in 2008, and then reincarcerated
in 2010. He described his crime as "criminal sexual
abuse." He testified that he had been falsely charged.
Respondent planned to work in his father's construction
business and ...