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In re Keyon R.

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Second District

February 23, 2017

In re KEYON R., a Minor
Merrick R., Respondent-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Winnebago County No. 14-JA-264 Honorable Mary Linn Green, Judge, Presiding.

          ZENOFF 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.[1] 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.[2] 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)[3]; 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 with DCFS.

         ¶ 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 incarcerated."

         ¶ 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 ...

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