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In re J.C.

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Second Division

July 23, 2019

In re J.C., a Minor
C.F., Respondent-Appellant. THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, Petitioner-Appellee,

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois. No. 12 JA 00846 Honorable Nicholas Geanopoulos, Judge Presiding.

          JUSTICE MASON delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Lavin and Justice Pucinski concurred in the judgment and opinion.


          MASON, JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 Respondent C.F. appeals the involuntary termination of her parental rights with respect to her daughter, J.C., following a September 19, 2018, hearing in which she was found unfit under the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (Juvenile Court Act) (705 ILCS 405/1-1 et seq. (West 2016)) and the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/1(D) (West 2016)). C.F. does not challenge the trial court's termination of parental rights findings but argues solely that the court erred in denying her motion to compel nine-year-old J.C. to testify at the termination hearing. Finding no error, we affirm.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 J.C. was born to C.F. on February 17, 2009. In August 2012, an anonymous call was made to the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) reporting a child left alone in a park. Police reported to the scene and found J.C. sitting alone in a stroller. Fifteen minutes after the police arrived, C.F. came and tried to push the stroller away. She told police that she was J.C.'s mother and they were homeless. She admitted that she slept in the park and left J.C. alone on a daily basis while she went to public restrooms to change her clothes and use drugs. Police found "many syringes" wrapped up in a diaper in the stroller with "evidence of recent use." C.F. was arrested for child endangerment, and J.C. was taken to a hospital for observation.

         ¶ 4 On August 29, 2012, the State filed a petition for adjudication of wardship over J.C, alleging that J.C. was neglected due to lack of care and an injurious environment and abused due to a substantial risk of physical injury. The State alleged that C.F. had "a long history of substance abuse that has not been addressed." Based on prior indicated reports, an intact family case was opened in 2011 to offer substance abuse treatment to C.F., but C.F. refused to participate in services, and the case closed in May 2012. The State further alleged that J.C.'s father was deceased. (The father's death certificate was later introduced into evidence.)

         ¶ 5 On March 7, 2013, after an adjudication hearing, the trial court entered a finding that J.C. was neglected due to C.F.'s lack of care and an injurious environment. Following a dispositional hearing on May 9, 2013, the trial court found C.F. unable to care for J.C. and entered an order making J.C. a ward of the court.

         ¶ 6 On May 27, 2016, after three years of periods of progress followed by lack of progress on C.F.'s part, the trial court found that C.F. had not made substantial progress toward J.C.'s return, stating that C.F. "still needs to participate in services in order to change the conditions that led to [J.C] being placed in DCFS care." Shortly thereafter, on July 15, 2016, J.C. was placed with a preadoptive foster home. On May 3, 2017, the trial court entered a permanency goal of substitute care pending a court determination on termination of C.F.'s parental rights.

         ¶ 7 On October 5, 2017, the State filed a "Supplemental Petition for the Appointment of a Guardian with the Right to Consent to Adoption," requesting the court find C.F. an unfit parent, permanently terminate C.F.'s parental rights, and appoint a guardian with the right to consent to J.C.'s adoption. The State alleged that J.C.'s foster parents wished to adopt her and adoption was in her best interest.

         ¶ 8 The termination hearing was set for September 19, 2018. On August 31, 2018, C.F. moved to compel then nine-year-old J.C. to appear and testify at the hearing. In response, J.C.'s attorney and guardian ad litem (GAL) filed a motion to quash the notice to compel, arguing that it was not in J.C.'s best interest to appear or testify. The GAL alleged that, during the past two years, J.C. had not wanted much, if any, contact with her mother, and she continually voiced this opinion to her caseworker, her therapist, and the GAL. Following her last two supervised visits with her mother on February 26 and April 27, 2018, J.C. did not want to resume visitation, because she was focused on her life at home and at school. The GAL stated that J.C. "has been subject to several very stressful and turbulent years" and opined that requiring her testimony would risk causing further emotional damage.

         ¶ 9 Termination of Parental Rights Hearing

         ¶ 10 The September 19, 2018, hearing began with the court addressing C.F.'s motion to compel J.C.'s testimony. As an offer of proof, C.F.'s counsel stated that, if called to testify, J.C. would state that she wanted to say goodbye to her mother and was not able to interact with her during visitation. J.C. would additionally testify that she wished to continue seeing her mother and did not want to cease all contact.

         ¶ 11 In further support of his motion, C.F.'s counsel argued that "the mother has the right to hear what the child is going to say." He stated that the GAL's allegation that J.C. did not want to see her mother was contrary to the mother's experiences during visitation, in which J.C. was "very affectionate," running up to her, hugging her, asking "Where have you been?" and "When am I going to see you *** again?" He therefore argued that C.F. should be allowed to hear J.C.'s testimony so she could know her daughter's true wishes. He suggested that, if testifying in front of her mother would be difficult for J.C, she could instead give testimony in camera.

         ¶ 12 In response, the GAL stated that there was no compelling reason to demand J.C.'s testimony, since, at best, it would pertain only to the question of her best interests and not to C.F.'s fitness as a mother. The GAL asserted that demanding her presence under those circumstances would amount to "harassment, oppression, and undue hardship." The State joined in the GAL's objection, pointing out that C.F. could testify to her relationship with J.C, thus rendering J.C.'s testimony redundant. The State also presented a letter from J.C.'s former therapist in which the therapist stated:" [T] riggers of her biological mother have adversely impacted [J.C]. *** Given that both her biological mother and court are stressors for [J.C] at this time, testifying will likely be troublesome for [J.C]."

         ¶ 13 The trial court denied the motion to compel J.C.'s testimony, finding that it was not in her best interest "given the history of the case and minor's own emotional needs and her special needs that have come out over the course of this case over the years." C.F.'s counsel then requested sanctions, asking that J.C.'s out-of-court statements regarding C.F. not be allowed even if they fell under an exception to the hearsay rule. (Counsel was unclear against whom these sanctions would be imposed.) ...

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