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In re Adoption of P.J.H.

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Fifth District

August 5, 2019

Kohl Bertels, Respondent-Appellant. Benjamin Gossard and Cheryl Hurst, Petitioners-Appellees,

          Rule 23 order filed 2 July 22, 2019.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Madison County. No. 18-AD-69 Honorable Martin J. Mengarelli, Judge, presiding.

          Attorney for Appellant Marshall H. Rinderer

          Attorney for Appellees Curtis L. Blood

          JUSTICE MOORE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Chapman and Cates concurred in the judgment and opinion.



         ¶ 1 The respondent, Kohl Bertels, appeals the February 22, 2019, order of the circuit court of Madison County which terminated his parental rights with regard to his minor daughter, P.J.H., after the petitioners, Benjamin Gossard and Cheryl Hurst, filed a petition requesting that Benjamin be allowed to adopt her. On appeal, the respondent argues that the circuit court erred in finding him to be an unfit parent pursuant to, inter alia, section 1(D)(b) of the Adoption Act. 750 ILCS 50/1(D)(b) (West 2018). For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         ¶ 2 FACTS

         ¶ 3 On June 1, 2018, Benjamin and Cheryl filed a petition in the circuit court of Madison County, seeking an order permitting Benjamin to adopt Cheryl's daughter, P.J.H., born in September of 2014. The petition alleged that Kohl is P.J.H.'s biological father but had failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern, or responsibility as to her welfare. The petition further alleged that Kohl had continuously neglected, abandoned, and deserted P.J.H. For these reasons, the petition alleged that Kohl was an unfit parent pursuant to section 1(D)(b) of the Adoption Act. Id. Finally, the petition alleged that it was in the best interests of P.J.H. that Kohl's parental rights be terminated and Benjamin be permitted to adopt P.J.H.

         ¶ 4 On June 18, 2018, Kohl, who was then incarcerated in the Department of Corrections, sent a letter to the circuit court stating that he did not wish to lose his rights as P.J.H.'s father. The circuit court accepted Kohl's letter as an answer to the petition and appointed counsel to represent Kohl in the proceedings. The circuit court also appointed a guardian ad litem (GAL) to represent P.J.H.'s interests. The circuit court entered orders of habeas corpus so that Kohl would be able to attend all hearings associated with the petition. On September 14, 2018, Benjamin and Cheryl filed an amended petition for adoption, adding an allegation that Kohl was depraved due to his having more than three felony convictions. See id. § 1(D)(i).

         ¶ 5 On November 27, 2018, the GAL filed her report and recommendation regarding Kohl's fitness as a parent. The GAL opined, in relevant part, that Kohl was depraved based on his felony convictions. Id. Further, the GAL opined that Kohl had no meaningful relationship with P.J.H. and had not seen or supported her during the prior three years, including periods when he was not incarcerated. Accordingly, the GAL recommended that Kohl's parental rights as to P.J.H. be terminated.

         ¶ 6 The circuit court held an evidentiary hearing on the petition on February 22, 2019. Kohl testified he was then incarcerated for a felony burglary he committed in October of 2016. He was previously convicted of felony burglary in 2012, 2013, and 2014. The circuit court took judicial notice of these convictions. Kohl testified that the last time he saw P.J.H. was in September of 2016, when he hosted a birthday party for P.J.H. at his home. He attempted to send her a box of toys through the Angel Tree program in December 2018. Prior to the petition being filed, he tried to call on a monthly basis to ask about P.J.H., but Cheryl told him to stop calling. He has not sent any birthday cards or presents prior to the petition being filed because he did not know the address until he was served with the petition.

         ¶ 7 Kohl testified that he has never paid child support. He visited P.J.H. on Christmas Eve of 2014 before he was incarcerated for a burglary he committed while Cheryl was pregnant with P.J.H. Prior to his current incarceration, he tried to contact P.J.H., but Cheryl and Benjamin told him he would need to go to court and get a visitation order. He was unable to establish paternity or request visitation due to his incarceration. Kohl testified that his crimes were a result of his drug use. Between his release in August of 2015 and his incarceration in October of 2016, he visited P.J.H. approximately 10 to 12 times. He asked to see her every week during this period of time, but Cheryl always told him to take her to court. Kohl testified he was set to be released in July of 2019, had completed a drug program, and was willing to do whatever it took to remain in P.J.H.'s life.

         ¶ 8 Cheryl testified that when she gave birth to P.J.H. in September of 2014, she asked Kohl to step out of the room, and instead, he left the hospital. He then showed up at her house a week or two later. From then until he went to jail on Christmas Eve of 2014, Kohl would stop by for five-minute visits once or twice a week. During his first incarceration, between December of 2014 and August of 2015, Kohl tried to call Cheryl multiple times, complaining that Benjamin had improperly undertaken a role as P.J.H.'s father. While Kohl was out of prison between August of 2015 and October of 2016, Cheryl allowed him to visit with P.J.H. for eight hours every other Saturday and three hours every Wednesday. However, Kohl began trying to switch the schedule because he only wanted visitation with P.J.H. on days when his girlfriend was home. Kohl was ...

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