In re NEVAEH R. and MARY R., Minors
Gabriel R., Respondent-Appellant. The People of the State of Illinois, Petitioner-Appellee,
from the Circuit Court of Winnebago County. Nos. 13-JA-568
13-JA-570 Honorable Francis M. Martinez, Judge, Presiding.
JUSTICE ZENOFF delivered the judgment of the court, with
opinion. Justices Hutchinson and Birkett concurred in the
judgment and opinion.
1 Respondent, Gabriel R., appeals the trial court's
orders finding him to be an unfit parent and terminating his
parental rights. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
2 I. BACKGROUND
3 Mary R. was born on November 10, 2001, and Nevaeh R. was
born on April 28, 2008. On November 13, 2014, the trial court
formally adjudicated respondent to be the minors'
biological father. Respondent was never married to the
minors' mother, Melissa O.
4 On April 21, 2011, respondent was convicted of aggravated
driving under the influence (DUI) that resulted in a death.
He was sentenced to eight years in the Illinois Department of
Corrections. He remained incarcerated at all times relevant
to these proceedings. His scheduled release date was May 19,
5 In December 2013, the minors were taken into care by the
Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS)
after they disclosed that Melissa's paramour had touched
their bodies while showering with them. On December 9, 2013,
DCFS was granted temporary custody and guardianship, and the
minors were placed in traditional foster care. On May 13,
2014, the minors were adjudicated neglected. On October 20,
2015, the State filed a motion to terminate the parental
rights of both respondent and Melissa. With respect to
respondent, the motion alleged that he was an unfit parent in
that he failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest,
concern, or responsibility as to the minors' welfare
(count I) and that he failed to make reasonable progress
toward their return to him within any nine-month period after
they were adjudicated neglected (count II). Count II alleged
two nine-month periods: May 13, 2014, to February 13, 2015,
and August 30, 2014, to May 30, 2015.
6 The unfitness hearing commenced on March 1, 2016, and
continued periodically until its conclusion on July 26, 2016.
With respect to respondent, the evidence showed the
following. Prior to his incarceration in 2010, respondent was
fully involved in the children's lives, although he had
not lived with them on a daily basis since 2008. After the
children went into foster care, respondent maintained contact
with DCFS, sent the children cards and letters, attended all
scheduled visitation sessions, and requested more frequent
visitation. While incarcerated, respondent obtained a degree
in cosmetology and an associate's degree in liberal arts.
He also completed a parenting class.
7 DCFS conducted an integrated assessment of respondent
followed by a service plan mandating him to "complete
[a] substance abuse assessment and
evaluation/treatment/counseling and follow up with [a]
recommendation at the correctional facility in which he is
placed" by December 30, 2014.
8 DCFS caseworker Stephanie Sanders testified that respondent
did not comply with the recommended services. She testified
that respondent had not inquired about a substance-abuse
assessment by November or December 2014. Documents in the
record establish that, as of May 11, 2015, respondent had not
requested or attended substance-abuse classes.
9 On September 2, 2016, the court orally ruled that the State
failed to prove count I (failure to maintain interest,
concern, or responsibility). As to count II, the court found
respondent to be an unfit parent and ruled:
"[Respondent] remains incarcerated and, therefore,
cannot make progress. Because of [respondent's]
incarceration, by law he is no closer today to being placed
[sic] because he's incarcerated than he was when
the children were taken into care." The court added:
"I do find that the State has shown, by clear and
convincing evidence, count II of [the] petition."
10 Thereafter, the court proceeded to a best-interest
hearing. With respect to respondent, the evidence showed the
following. Sanders testified that she had never observed the
children interact with respondent, as another agency
supervised the visits at the prison where respondent was
incarcerated. However, Sanders reviewed the other
agency's case notes regarding those visits and received
reports from the children. Sanders understood that the
children had a bond with respondent and enjoyed their visits
with him. Sanders testified that the children and respondent
also exchanged cards and letters. On cross-examination,
Sanders agreed that the termination of respondent's
parental rights could be detrimental to the children. She
testified: "I'm not saying that [the children]
won't be harmed by a termination. I think they would be
harmed either way, if they stay in the foster home or go home
to the parents." Sanders added that it was "up to
the mercy of the court." She opined that it would be
good for the children to continue to have a relationship with
their biological parents.
11 Sanders also testified that the children were living with
the foster parents and had bonded with that family. Sanders
opined that the foster parents were meeting all of the
children's needs. According to Sanders, the children were
vehement that they did not want to testify, because they did
not want to voice a choice between living with the foster
parents and going home to their mother. Sanders testified
that the children desired finality above all else. In
Sanders's opinion, the children would benefit more from
the termination of parental rights, because of the support
and structure offered by the foster parents. Her sense was
that the children felt that they belonged more to the foster
family than to their mother. Sanders testified that recently