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In re Nicholas C.

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Third Division

May 10, 2017

In re NICHOLAS C. and NATHAN W., Minors
Mandi C., Respondent-Appellant. The People of the State of Illinois, Petitioner-Appellee,

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. Nos. 11 JA 00083, 11 JA 00084, The Honorable Andrea Buford, Judge Presiding.

          JUSTICE FITZGERALD SMITH delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion, Justices Lavin and Cobbs concurred in the judgment and opinion.



         ¶ 1 Mother/respondent-appellant Mandi C. appeals from the Cook County circuit court's order in the instant cause finding her to be unfit under section 50/1(D)(b) of the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(b) (West 2012)) and ordering the termination of her parental rights over Nicholas C. and Nathan W., her minor children. She contends that the trial court's determination was "not supported by clear and convincing evidence" and was made "contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence." She asks that we reverse its decision, remand this cause, and vacate the permanency goal of adoption, the order terminating her parental rights, and the appointment of a guardian with the right to consent to the children's adoption. The State and the minors' public guardian have filed appellees' briefs. For the following reasons, we affirm.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 Nathan was born on September 24, 2006, and Nicholas was born on May 24, 2010, to respondent, their biological mother.[1] This cause was initiated in February 2011, when the State filed petitions for adjudication of wardship alleging that the boys were neglected due to injurious environment and abused due to physical abuse and substantial risk of physical injury. With respect to eight-month-old Nicholas's petition, the State cited a prior indicated report of respondent for substance abuse; that he had sustained abusive head trauma, extensive retinal hemorrhaging, and intracranial hemorrhaging in January 2011 exhibiting both old and new head injuries and shaken baby syndrome, requiring that he be placed on life support; and that respondent's explanations were not consistent with his injuries. With respect to the petition for four-year-old Nathan, who is autistic, the State asserted that he was neglected and abused in that his brother had sustained these injuries and respondent's explanations for them were inconsistent. On August 21, 2012, the trial court held an adjudicatory hearing, finding both boys to be abused or neglected, and entered dispositional orders finding respondent unable for some reason other than financial circumstances alone to care for, protect, train, or discipline them. The boys were declared wards of the court, and temporary custody was given to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

         ¶ 4 Following this, several permanency hearings were held. Initially, in August 2012, the reunification goal was set at return home within 12 months, with the court noting that respondent had made "some progress" in her assigned services. Thereafter, respondent was able to obtain an order for supervised visits and, later, unsupervised visits. However, by the next permanency hearing in January 2013, the court found that respondent had not made substantial progress and set a goal of return home pending status. The court determined that respondent had not engaged in all her assigned services, namely, individual therapy and a psychiatric evaluation. The trial court kept the same goal at the subsequent permanency hearing in April 2013, again noting that while respondent had made "good progress, " she still needed to engage in services, this time, urine drops. Then, following reports made by her therapist and those assigned to her case indicating that respondent was not participating in individual therapy and was testing positive at urine drops, the trial court, in November 2013 changed the reunification goal to substitute care pending determination on termination of parental rights, citing that respondent was not engaged in services or visiting consistently.

         ¶ 5 In April 2014, the State filed petitions for appointment of guardian with the right to consent to adoption for Nathan and Nicholas. The State premised its allegations of respondent's unfitness on sections 1(D)(b) and 1(D)(m) of the Adoption Act (ground (b) and ground (m)) (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(b), 1(D)(m) (West 2012)), asserting that she failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern, or responsibility as to the boys' welfare and that she failed to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis of removal and failed to make reasonable progress toward return of the children within any nine-month period following their adjudication.[2] With respect to ground (m), the State identified the nine-month time period as August 21, 2012, to May 21, 2013.

         ¶ 6 In June 2014, Charisse C., respondent's mother, filed a petition for private guardianship of the boys. Briefly, during a hearing on this petition, Mattie Franklin, their DCFS caseworker, testified that Charisse had attended a staffing in September 2013, at which time Franklin asked her why she did not offer care for the boys, to which Charisse responded that she did not want the boys placed with her, as she had raised her own children and wanted to move on with her life. Franklin further testified that she told Charisse the reunification goal would soon be changed to termination but Charisse was still not willing to adopt them. Charisse testified as to her visitation with the boys, her awareness of their special needs, her desire to maintain contact with their foster parent, and her confusion with respect to petitioning for them; she stated that she would have done so earlier but was told she could not have them since respondent was living with her. Respondent supported Charisse's petition. On cross-examination, Charisse admitted that on three separate occasions in 2011, Nicholas sustained head injuries while in respondent's care but while living in her (Charisse's) home; he hit his head on the ceramic floor, he was dropped midway down the stairs and hit his head on the concrete floor at the bottom, and his head became wedged between his crib and the wall. Nicholas was not taken to the doctor, but Charisse stated that when she eventually noticed something seemed to be wrong with him, she made sure he saw one. Additional evidence indicated that there was concern about Charisse's paramour, whose background could not be approved due to criminal charges. The trial court denied Charisse's petition for private guardianship, finding, among other reasons, that she was "not credible."

         ¶ 7 The cause then moved to an unfitness hearing regarding respondent. Jim Boggess, her case management director, testified that he approved respondent's 2011 integrated assessment report and attended team meetings regarding the boys. The report indicated that the cause came to DCFS's attention when Nicholas was brought to the hospital with old and new brain injuries, was diagnosed with shaken baby syndrome, and was placed on life support. Respondent expressed guilt and remorse but was not able to provide an adequate explanation for his injuries, nor did she deny that she or anyone in the household injured Nicholas. Respondent also had a prior indicated report with DCFS for drug use, including marijuana and crystal meth. She stated during the assessment that she continued to use marijuana, that Nicholas was born premature and substance exposed, and that she had not obtained prenatal care while pregnant; she also used marijuana in the presence of her children. When she gave birth to Nicholas, respondent decided to place him for adoption but then felt guilty and reclaimed him. Nicholas was also born with plagiocephaly, but respondent did not have him regularly wear a helmet as instructed by doctors. With respect to Nathan, respondent exhibited issues in disciplining him, due to his autism. Boggess testified that while the assessment indicated respondent loved her children, she lacked understanding or concern for them and she required mental health services, as well as parenting skills, substance abuse treatment, and other recommended services.

         ¶ 8 Angela Thomas, a substance abuse counselor, testified that she worked with respondent after an assessment recommended intensive outpatient treatment for marijuana and alcohol abuse. Respondent successfully completed this treatment, and it was recommended that she continue with outpatient treatment. Some months later, respondent told Thomas that she had obtained a new job and wanted to work with her during individual sessions. Thomas agreed and told respondent to bring verification of her employment. Respondent never did. Thereafter, respondent's urine drop tested positive for cocaine, and she was placed on a behavioral contract, which required her to obtain a sponsor and attend further treatment. Respondent did not do so and stopped attending sessions. Respondent's outpatient treatment was terminated unsuccessfully.

         ¶ 9 Dr. Paul Cantz testified that he provided psychotherapy for respondent as part of her services, and his case notes and clinical summaries were submitted into evidence. Dr. Cantz noted for the court that, while respondent had made some progress therapeutically, she tested positive for cocaine and had begun attending her Narcotics Anonymous meetings with decreased frequency. He further stated that she had ambivalence regarding addiction counseling and that this indicated her continued need for both psychotherapy and drug counseling services.

         ¶ 10 Erin Paavola, respondent's in-home family therapist, testified that she provided services to respondent from January 2012 to January 2013 and prepared a treatment plan to address both her drug use and her parenting practices. Initially, she met with respondent once a week but then increased their meetings to twice a week, as needed. However, respondent did not keep her appointments and did not meet with Paavola on a regular basis. Paavola noted she was not invested in the therapy and she did not demonstrate that her children were a priority; she also continued to use marijuana. Paavola encouraged respondent to continue with the therapy, but while she was sometimes receptive, there were weeks where Paavola did not hear from her. Throughout her time with respondent, Paavola had terminated her from therapy twice for her failure to attend, but each time Paavola took her back. In December 2012, Paavola terminated her for the last time. Paavola opined that while respondent had made limited progress in therapy and that she undoubtedly loved her children, she did not continue to make progress and did not accept her responsibility to parent, to assess her children's needs, and to put their needs before hers. She further indicated that respondent was psychologically dependent on other people for motivation and direction and, because of this, showed a lack of parenting judgment, particularly in terms of their safety. Paavola recommended that respondent undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

         ¶ 11 Tracy Vinson, a social worker who provided individual therapy for respondent, testified that she began working with her in February 2013 and set particular treatment goals. Initially, respondent attended sessions consistently, not missing any between February and April 2013 and progressing toward some goals. However, respondent then began to miss appointments without contact to reschedule and, in July 2013, Vinson terminated her from therapy. In late August 2013, respondent returned to Vinson with her caseworker, and Vinson allowed her to re-engage in therapy. However, respondent only participated in one session and failed to attend any others and concurrently became inconsistent in her visitation with the boys, admitting she was being neglectful toward them. She told Vinson that she had become depressed about having to again live with her mother, which began in June 2013, and while she was upset that the boys were distraught over her absences, she stated that not having transportation was a problem. However, respondent was able to take public transportation and received monthly bus passes from her ...

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