In re DL

Decision Date23 March 2000
Docket NumberNo. 86161.,86161.
Citation191 Ill.2d 1,245 Ill.Dec. 256,727 N.E.2d 990
PartiesIn re D.L., A Minor (The People of the State of Illinois, Appellee, v. Tawanda R., Appellant).
CourtIllinois Supreme Court

Rita A. Fry, Public Defender, Chicago (James H. Reddy and William M. Brennan, Assistant Public Defenders, of counsel), for Appellant.

James E. Ryan, Attorney General, Springfield, Richard A. Devine, State's Attorney, Chicago (William L. Browers, Assistant Attorney General, Chicago, Renee Goldfarb, Kenneth T. McCurry, Gunta Z. Hadac and Teresa A. Maganzini, Assistant State's Attorneys, of counsel), for the People.

Patrick T. Murphy, Public Guardian, Chicago (Lee Ann Lowder, Assistant Public Guardian, of counsel), for minor Appellee.

Justice MILLER delivered the opinion of the court:

Following an evidentiary hearing in the circuit court of Cook County, the trial judge concluded that the respondent, Tawanda R., was not an unfit parent, and the court therefore denied a petition filed by the State that sought the termination of Tawanda's parental rights with respect to the minor child, D.L. The appellate court reversed, concluding that Tawanda's unfitness had been established, and remanded the cause for further proceedings. 298 Ill.App.3d 905, 232 Ill.Dec. 877, 699 N.E.2d 1062. We allowed Tawanda's petition for leave to appeal (177 Ill.2d R. 315(a)), and we now affirm the judgment of the appellate court.

The facts in this case, although lengthy, are not in dispute. Tawanda gave birth to the minor, D.L., on July 8, 1992. This was Tawanda's second child, and toxicology reports showed that D.L., like his older brother, H.L., tested positive for cocaine at birth. D.L. also tested positive for opiates. Tawanda admitted to the attending physician that she had used cocaine while pregnant with D.L. and had used the drug just three weeks before the child's birth.

On September 15, 1992, the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) filed a petition for adjudication of wardship on D.L.'s behalf, alleging that he was neglected because he had been exposed to an injurious environment and because at the time of birth he tested positive for cocaine and opiates. On the same day, DCFS was appointed as temporary custodian of D.L. The child was initially placed with his maternal grandmother, but he was later removed from that home because of additional medical neglect. D.L. was subsequently placed in the home of Ida Palmer, a foster parent, and he has remained in Palmer's care since that time. During the first six weeks that D.L. was with Palmer, she took him to a pediatrician several times because he was suffering from diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration. The condition persisted, and Palmer took D.L. to the hospital on December 16, 1992. Two days later, Family Care Services, a foster agency with which DCFS had contracted to monitor care for D.L. and his brother, H.L., noted that D.L. had symptoms of withdrawal and tremors.

Tawanda did not maintain contact with DCFS from July 1992 to July 1993, and during that time she failed to participate in any drug treatment program, though on several occasions she had promised to do so. On February 9, 1993, the circuit court found that D.L. was neglected because of lack of care, exposure to an injurious environment, and exposure to drugs at birth. On March 23, 1993, D.L. was adjudicated a ward of the court, and DCFS was appointed as D.L.'s guardian. The court found that Tawanda was unable or unwilling to provide for D.L Tawanda did not contact Family Care Services from January 1993 through October 1993. In September 1993, the agency attempted to reach Tawanda and left a card and telephone number with Tawanda's grandmother. In November 1993, Tawanda called the agency and asked if she could visit D.L. before entering a drug treatment program. An agency representative explained the steps that Tawanda would need to take to obtain visitation with D.L. and to regain custody of him. Tawanda asked repeatedly to see D.L. that day or the next. An agency representative said that she would schedule a visit and would notify Tawanda of the date and time, once the visit had been arranged. Within 10 days, the agency called to inform Tawanda of the scheduled visit, but Tawanda's mother said that she had not seen Tawanda for a week. Tawanda did not appear for the scheduled visit.

In March 1994, Tawanda again enrolled in a drug treatment program. She was asked to leave the program after only three weeks of treatment, however, because she violated the rules. In May 1994, DCFS rated Tawanda's progress as unsatisfactory because she was uncooperative, did not complete a drug treatment program, and had not visited D.L. during the previous year. After that assessment, Tawanda visited D.L. three times between May 1994 and November 1994. D.L. remained in Ida Palmer's care.

On March 16, 1995, the State filed a supplemental petition for appointment of a guardian with authority to consent to D.L.'s adoption. The petition alleged that D.L.'s parents were unfit, pursuant to section 2-29 of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (705 ILCS 405/2-29 (West 1994)) and section 1 of the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/1 (West 1994)), and alleged five distinct grounds of unfitness. Service on Tawanda was accomplished by publication. On June 6, 1995, Tawanda failed to appear on the scheduled court date. She was found in default, and the case was then set for a hearing on the petition. On September 27, 1995, Tawanda appeared in court, and the circuit judge vacated the earlier default order. Tawanda told the judge that she wanted to regain custody of D.L., and the judge appointed counsel to represent her in the matter. On November 20, 1995, Tawanda entered a drug treatment program. She visited D.L. in December of that year, bringing him several gifts. D.L. commented that he wanted to give several of the gifts to his mother, referring to his foster mother, Ida Palmer. Between December 1995 and April 1996, Tawanda met regularly with D.L. and cooperated with her supervisors, but her supervisors believed that D.L. was not yet ready to be returned to Tawanda.

In August 1996, Larry M. Small, a clinical psychologist, conducted a bonding and attachment assessment regarding Tawanda and D.L. At first, D.L. did not recognize Tawanda and when asked who she was, replied, "Nobody." Small reported that Tawanda showed little regard for D.L.'s emotional state and was not concerned that he might be confused or upset by being told that Tawanda was his mother. Small recommended that Tawanda not have unsupervised visitation with D.L. until she maintained a regular visitation schedule with him. Tawanda next saw D.L. in October 1996. In November or December 1996, Tawanda and her now-husband, Craig, who is not D.L.'s biological father, visited D.L. together. On December 5, 1996, the court denied Tawanda's motion for unsupervised visitation with D.L.

An evidentiary hearing on the petition to terminate parental rights commenced in February 1997 and was completed in June 1997. The parties introduced evidence, as described above, regarding Tawanda's conduct and activities in the time following D.L.'s birth. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial judge ruled that Tawanda was not an unfit parent primarily because she had been drug-free for nearly two years. The judge concluded that the State had failed to prove any of the grounds of unfitness alleged against Tawanda. Separately, the court concluded that D.L.'s biological father was unfit; the propriety of the ruling concerning the father is not at issue here.

Both the guardian and the State appealed from the circuit court's determination that Tawanda was not an unfit parent. The appellate court reversed the circuit court judgment and remanded the cause for further proceedings. 298 Ill.App.3d 905, 232 Ill.Dec. 877, 699 N.E.2d 1062. The appellate court concluded that the State had established at least three grounds on which Tawanda was an unfit parent. Regarding the allegation of unfitness based on section 1(D)(m) of the Adoption Act, which provides that a parent is unfit if, within 12 months of an adjudication of neglect, abuse, or dependency, the parent fails to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that led to the removal of the child or reasonable progress toward the return of the child, the appellate court found that the circuit judge erred in considering Tawanda's behavior more than 12 months after the adjudication of neglect in this case. The court believed that section 1(D)(m) of the Adoption Act limits the fact finder to a consideration of conduct by the parent during 12 months after an adjudication of neglect, regardless of the date of the subsequent hearing to determine parental fitness. In reaching this result, the appellate court declined to follow decisions from other panels of the appellate court that have allowed a judge considering an allegation of unfitness under section 1(D)(m) to consider the parent's conduct during the entire period of time between the adjudication of neglect, abuse, or dependency and the parental fitness hearing. See, e.g., In re C.R., 221 Ill.App.3d 373, 381, 163 Ill. Dec. 779, 581 N.E.2d 1202 (1991); In re A.T., 197 Ill.App.3d 821, 832, 144 Ill.Dec. 283, 555 N.E.2d 402 (1990); In re R.S., 174 Ill.App.3d 132, 133-34, 123 Ill.Dec. 641, 528 N.E.2d 25 (1988). The appellate court remanded the matter so that the circuit court could proceed to the next stage in the action and determine whether termination of Tawanda's parental rights would be in the best interests of D.L. We allowed Tawanda's petition for leave to appeal (177 Ill.2d R. 315(a)), and we now affirm the judgment of the appellate court.

Section 1(D) of the Adoption Act defines the term "[u]nfit person" and lists a variety of discrete grounds on which a person may be found unfit. Before this court, Tawanda challenges only one of the grounds on which the appellate court determined that she could be...

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