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In re Je. A.

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Sixth Division

October 4, 2019

In re Je. A., E.A., and Ja. A., Minors,
v.
Newgene A., Respondent-Appellant. The People of the State of Illinois, Petitioner-Appellee,

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County Nos. 13 JA 790, 13 JA 791 & 15 JA 795 Honorable Andrea Buford, Judge Presiding.

          Attorneys for Appellant: Elizabeth Powell Butler, of Northbrook, Illinois, for appellant.

          Attorneys for Appellees: Kimberly M. Foxx, State's Attorney, County of Cook (Alan J. Spellberg, Gina Divito, Leslie Billings, Assistant State's Attorney's, of counsel), for petitioner-appellee. Charles P. Golbert, Cook County Public Guardian (Kass A. Plain, of counsel), for minors-respondents-appellees.

          JUSTICE CONNORS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justice Harris and Justice Delort concurred in the judgment.

          OPINION

          CONNORS, JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 This is an expedited appeal that concerns the care and custody of minor children. Respondent Newgene A. appeals from an order of the circuit court finding him unfit as a parent as defined in sections 1(D)(b) and 1(D)(m) of the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(b), (m) (West 2018)) and pursuant to section 2-29 of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (705 ILCS 405/2-29 (West 2018)) and terminating his parental rights to his minor children, Je. A., E.A., and Ja. A. Respondent contends that the evidence failed to establish that he was unfit. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 Respondent is the biological father of twin boys, Je. A. and E.A., born on August 9, 2013, and their younger brother Ja. A., born August 3, 2015. Janica M.[1] is the mother of all three boys.

         ¶ 4 Background of the Case for Je. A. and E.A.

         ¶ 5 The twins were taken into temporary protective custody 12 days after their birth on August 21, 2013, based on allegations of abuse and neglect. On August 23, 2013, the State filed a petition for adjudication of wardship, alleging that their environment was injurious to their welfare and that they were at a substantial risk of physical injury. The petition reflected that Janica M. had three other minor children that were in the custody of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Janica M. had been inconsistent with services, including attending substance abuse support group meetings, random urine drops, and individual therapy. The petition also stated that she and respondent needed to complete psychological evaluations. Additionally, respondent was in need of services, including therapy. The affidavit supporting the State's petition stated that respondent was convicted of murder and served 35 years in prison. Respondent was asked to complete individual and couples counseling but had not done so at the time the petition was filed. Janica M. and respondent lived with Janica M.'s mother, who also had a history of prior involvement with DCFS.

         ¶ 6 On August 23, 2013, a temporary custody hearing was held, and the court found that probable cause of abuse and neglect existed and there was an urgent and immediate need to remove the twins from their parents' home. The court based its finding on Janica M.'s history with DCFS, her failure to comply with services, and respondent's failure to follow-up on recommended services. At the time, respondent's paternity had not yet been established. Also on that date, the public guardian was appointed to represent the twins.

         ¶ 7 On October 22, 2013, the court entered paternity orders, finding that respondent was the twins' father. On May 22, 2014, the court held an adjudication hearing and found the twins neglected due to an injurious environment (705 ILCS 405/2-3(1)(b) (West 2012)) based on Janica M.'s extensive history with DCFS, substance misuse, and failure to complete services. Additionally, the order reflected that paternity had not been established[2] and that respondent required assessment and services.

         ¶ 8 On June 13, 2014, the court conducted a permanency planning hearing and set a permanency goal of return home within 12 months. The court's order reflected that Janica M. had made "some progress" towards the twins' return home, respondent had made substantial progress towards the twins' return home, but that respondent and Janica M. had not successfully completed reunification services. The twins were adjudicated wards of the court, and respondent was found "unable for some reason other than financial circumstances alone to care for, protect, train, or discipline the minor[s]."

         ¶ 9 On October 17, 2014, the court entered another permanency order with a goal of return home within 12 months, finding that "mother and father have made progress in services."

         ¶ 10 On April 17, 2015, the court entered an order setting the twins' permanency goal at return home within 12 months, finding that respondent had made substantial progress towards this goal and that the parents were engaged in reunification services and visitation. The order also stated that the twins were placed with nonrelative foster parents. On October 15, 2015, the court entered another permanency order with the goal of return home within 12 months. That order did not contain a finding about respondent's progress but stated that he and Janica M. were engaged in reunification services and visitation.

         ¶ 11 On October 19, 2016, the court entered a permanency order that changed the twins' goal to substitute care pending a court determination on termination of parental rights. The order stated as follows: the twins are "three years old and placed together in a stable, preadoptive home. Mother's whereabouts are unknown. Father is incarcerated. Reunification services remain outstanding. Parent-child visitation has been inconsistent."

         ¶ 12 Background of the Case for Ja. A.

         ¶ 13 Ja. A. was taken into temporary protective custody three days after his birth on August 6, 2015, based on allegations of abuse and neglect. On August 10, 2015, the State filed a petition for adjudication of wardship, alleging that his environment was injurious to his welfare and that he was at a substantial risk of physical injury. The petition stated that Janica M. had five other children that were in DCFS custody. In addition to the same allegations contained in the twins' petition, the State alleged that Janica M. had not attended support meetings since November 2014 and missed several urine drops since March 2015. The petition also stated that respondent needed to complete random urine drops and additional parent coaching and had been noncompliant with the urine drops. Respondent and Janica M. were then living together. Also on that date, the court held a temporary custody hearing and found that based on the allegations of the State's petition, probable cause existed that Ja. A. was abused or neglected, which supported his removal from the home. The public guardian was appointed to represent Ja. A.

         ¶ 14 On August 19, 2015, the court entered a temporary custody order, finding that probable cause existed that Ja. A. was neglected and that there was an immediate and urgent need to remove him from the home based on Janica M.'s history with DCFS and outstanding services. The order also stated that respondent's paternity had not yet been established and that he had outstanding drops. Also on that date, respondent was granted supervised day visitation with Ja. A. of eight hours per week. On October 15, 2015, the court entered a paternity order, finding that respondent was Ja. A.' s father.

         ¶ 15 On January 21, 2016, the court entered an adjudication order for Ja. A., finding that he was abused or neglected based on an injurious environment (705 ILCS 405/2-3(1)(b) (West 2014)) and substantial risk/physical injury (id. § 2-3(2)(ii)). The order stated that the parents had prior DCFS involvement, Janica M. had a history of substance misuse and had not completed recommended services, and that the parents resided together.

         ¶ 16 On January 11, 2017, the court adjudicated Ja. A. a ward of the court, finding that both respondent and Janica M. were "unable for some reason other than financial circumstances alone to care for, protect, train, or discipline the minor." The order reflected that services aimed at family preservation and reunification had been unsuccessful.

         ¶ 17 On March 9, 2017, the court entered a permanency order with a goal of substitute care pending court determination of termination of parental rights. The order reflected that Ja. A. was one-and-a-half years old and in a two-parent foster home. Respondent was incarcerated and Janica M. had not visited Ja. A.

         ¶ 18 Termination Proceedings

         ¶ 19 The State filed motions for the appointment of a guardian with the right to consent to adoption for the twins on January 30, 2017, and on July 21, 2017, for Ja. A. (collectively, termination petitions). The termination petitions listed respondent's address as Danville Correctional Center. The termination petitions alleged that respondent was unfit to parent under section 1(D)(b) of the Adoption Act (failure to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern, or responsibility as to the children's welfare) and section 1(D)(m) of the Adoption Act (failure to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions which were the basis of removal of the children and/or failure to make reasonable progress toward return of the children within any nine-month period). On April 24, 2018, the State filed its pleading specifying the nine-month time periods for progress for the twins as May 22, 2014, through February 22, 2015; February 23, 2015, through November 23, 2015; November 24, 2015, through August 24, 2016; and January 19, 2016, through October 19, 2016. The State also specified the nine-month time periods for progress for Ja. A. as January 21, 2016, through October 21, 2016, and June 9, 2016, through March 9, 2017.

         ¶ 20 Unfitness Hearing

         ¶ 21 On May 16, 2018, the court began respondent's unfitness hearing as to all three minor children. The court ultimately entered an order terminating Janica M.'s parental rights as a result of default through publication on January 23, 2018. Also on that date, the State filed an amended pleading specifying a single nine-month time period for progress as January 19, 2016, through October 19, 2016, for the twins and June 9, 2016, through March 9, 2017, for Ja. A.

         ¶ 22 The State called respondent to testify. Respondent testified that from September 2016 through September 2017, he was incarcerated at Danville Correctional Center. Respondent explained that he was incarcerated for failing to register as a murderer, which he was required to do for 10 years. Respondent stated that he had registered for three years, but after his kids were born and DCFS got involved, the situation became very stressful. He also stated that registering had "slip[ped] [his] mind" because he was "most focused on [his] kids being in DCFS" and that he was "going through a lot of stuff with their mother." Respondent testified that while incarcerated he requested visits with his children. He stated that visits were going to be set up but ultimately were not because:

"What happened, I had to go in the visiting room to fill out some papers, and they were saying, [y]ou can't hold your kids. They got to be on this side of the table. The kids cannot get up and then act, and I thought *** that would be unjust because they [are] little boys because little boys, and they gonna run around, so that would cause problems between me and them."

         Respondent testified that, while in prison, he completed a parenting class in May 2017. Respondent has not been incarcerated since September 2017.

         ¶ 23 The State next called Ava de Groh, a caseworker from Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI or agency), who had been assigned to this case on December 28, 2015. At that time, the permanency goal for the three boys was return home within 12 months.

         ¶ 24 Regarding Janica M., de Groh testified that prior to reunification, she needed to complete anger management and Narcotics Anonymous/Alcoholics Anonymous (NA/AA) and that because she was inconsistent with her sessions, de Groh never found any satisfactory ratings for the mother. Janica M. was only rated satisfactory in parenting coaching, and that was due to the fact that parenting coaching was done at Janica M.'s home during visits. De Groh testified that she did not recommend unsupervised visits with the mother because she failed to complete anger management and NA/AA and still had a continued recommendation of parenting coaching. She also testified that the permanency goal for the twins was changed to termination of parental rights because Janica M. was inconsistent with her visits, discharged unsuccessfully from NA/AA and anger management, and still needed a parenting coach. The mother was found unsatisfactory for visitation because she did not attend a majority of the visits with Ja. A. De Groh testified that the eventual change in permanency goal to termination of parental rights for Ja. A. was largely on the same basis as the twins. De Groh was unable to get in contact with the mother after October or November 2016.

         ¶ 25 De Groh then turned her testimony to respondent. She stated that as of January 2016, respondent only needed parenting coaching prior to the children being able to return home. She stated that she would have ranked respondent as satisfactory for parenting coaching from January through April 2016 because the services were conducted in his home during visits and that, in May 2016, LSSI was still recommending a goal of return home within 12 months for the children. De Groh explained that the rating would have changed after May 2016 for two reasons-the parenting coach abruptly left the agency and respondent was incarcerated in September 2016, which was when the new parenting coach began work at the agency. De Groh testified that respondent's visits were always supervised and there was never a recommendation for unsupervised visits with all three children. When given the choice, respondent selected supervised visits within the agency "so that way if there was any concerns or issues or if there was any signs of distress, he would have support of our agency or another caseworker with him." During 2016, both mother and respondent informed de Groh they were seeking reunification with one another, which was significant because parenting coaching was combined as a result of their desire to co-parent.

         ¶ 26 When asked why LSSI recommended a goal change to termination of parental rights for the twins in October 2016, de Groh responded that it was based on respondent's incarceration and his failure to complete parenting coaching. In July 2016, respondent informed de Groh that he was no longer seeking reunification with Janica M. As a result, respondent needed to be reassessed for all services as a single parent. De Groh testified that near the time of respondent's incarceration she was able to speak with respondent regarding the necessary services and informed him that he would need to complete a substance abuse assessment and a mental health assessment, engage in individual therapy, and complete parenting coaching and parent education. When recommending the goal change to termination, the agency considered the length of time the children had been in custody because the twins had been in DCFS care since August 2013 and Ja. A. had been in DCFS care since August 2015. De Groh testified that respondent sent a letter to her supervisor while incarcerated asking about visits with the children and his status regarding services.

         ¶ 27 De Groh testified that the agency recommended a change in permanency goal to termination of parental rights for Ja. A. in March 2017 based on respondent's inconsistencies prior to incarceration, the incarceration itself, and that services were still needed. Respondent called de Groh in September 2017 to inform her that he was out of prison and asked when visits would start. De Groh stated that from the time she became the family's caseworker in 2015, respondent never sent her any items of value, cards, gifts or similar items, or letters for the children.

         ¶ 28 On cross-examination, De Groh testified that respondent had parenting coaching through LSSI from May 2014 through March 2016. There were concerns about respondent's ability to meet the three children's needs alone if he was not with Janica M. De Groh elaborated on a visit she observed during which Janica M. was sick and respondent was trying to "keep up" and play with all three children, while also trying to address Ja. A.'s needs, because he was still a baby at that point. Respondent had a difficult time getting the children to comply with what he was asking, getting them to take a nap, and making sure they were playing safely and appropriately. Specifically, when the twins were supposed to take a nap, respondent "would just place the twins on the bed, put a blanket on them and leave the room." The twins would then get up and run around. De Groh testified that she met with respondent on October 13, 2017, informed him that he needed a mental health assessment and a substance abuse assessment, and provided him a list of community providers that could do those assessments. LSSI does not pay for services once the goal is changed to termination of parental rights. Although respondent informed de Groh that he scheduled an appointment for an intake assessment, she was never able to verify that he actually made the appointment. Respondent never informed her that he completed either assessment.

         ¶ 29 De Groh testified that from December 2015 until August 2016, the same visitation plan was in place-one visit per week with all three children in the parents' home and one visit per week with only Ja. A. at the agency. During the visit when Janica M. was ill and respondent was primarily responsible for caring for all three boys, de Groh described him as "exhausted" after the visit. Respondent and Janica M. did not consistently attend the weekly visit with Ja. A. at the agency. Specifically, respondent only attended one or two visits per month with Ja. A. during the aforementioned nine-month period. Between August 2016 and November 2017, respondent did not visit with the children. De Groh testified that during one of the visits with respondent, she was concerned because she observed respondent give chicken wings with bones in them-a choking hazard-to the twins, who were then around three years old. However, she also observed respondent feed Ja. A. with appropriate foods and change diapers. De Groh stated that when she prompted respondent with suggestions, he followed her advice. Since he was released from prison, respondent visited with the children five times but did not bring little gifts or food for the children during any visits. The children's foster parents were also present during these visits. During those five visits, although all three children were present, respondent was more engaged with Ja. A. De Groh testified that at the time of her testimony she would not recommend unsupervised visits between respondent and the three boys because she observed Ja. A. being very standoffish with respondent and would not look at him. The twins were also resistant to interacting with respondent.

         ¶ 30 De Groh stated that in August 2016, when respondent informed her that he was no longer with Janica M., she recommended all services for him as single parent, which included parent coaching, a substance abuse assessment, mental health assessment and individual therapy, and parent education. De Groh testified that the parenting goal was changed one month after respondent became incarcerated, when de Groh learned that respondent would not be discharged from prison until September 2018, though he was actually discharged in September 2017. De Groh stated that her agency recommended that the three boys not visit respondent while he was incarcerated because it could be a "stressor" for them. She further testified that respondent contacted her when he was released from prison in September 2017, but the first visit was not until November 2017.

         ¶ 31 The State rested after calling respondent and de Groh as witnesses and introducing 10 client services plans and 2 integrated assessments (IAs)[3] into evidence. Family service plans are prepared every six months. Further, de Groh explained that an IA is a very thorough assessment prepared by a clinician that contains information regarding the ...


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