In re DT, 96229.

CourtSupreme Court of Illinois
Citation818 N.E.2d 1214,212 Ill.2d 347,289 Ill.Dec. 11
Docket NumberNo. 96229.,96229.
PartiesIn re D.T., A Minor (The People of the State of Illinois et al., Appellants, v. Brenda T., Appellee).
Decision Date21 October 2004

818 N.E.2d 1214
212 Ill.2d 347
289 Ill.Dec.

In re D.T., A Minor (The People of the State of Illinois et al., Appellants, v. Brenda T., Appellee)

No. 96229.

Supreme Court of Illinois.

October 21, 2004.

818 N.E.2d 1218
Lisa Madigan, Attorney General, Springfield, Richard A. Devine, State's Attorneys, Chicago (Deborah Ahlstrand, Nancy Kisicki, Assistant Attorneys General, Chicago, Renee Goldfarb, James Fitzgerald, Nancy Grauer Kisicki, Carrie Strobel Wells, Stephanie A. Buck, Assistant State's Attorneys, of counsel), for the People

Patrick T. Murphy, Cook County Public Guardian, Chicago (Charles P. Golbert, Allison D. Ortlieb, Carrie C. Fung, of counsel), for the minor.

Richard T. Cozzola, Sheri M. Danz, Diana C. White, Maureen Looker, Nicole Bazer, Chicago, for appellee.

Myra A. Marcaurelle, Jack L. Block, of Sachnoff & Weaver, Ltd., Chicago, for amici curiae Loyola Childlaw Center and National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

Justice FITZGERALD delivered the opinion of the court:

In this appeal we determine the proper standard of proof applicable during the "best-interests" portion of a proceeding to terminate parental rights. The circuit court of Cook County terminated respondent mother's parental rights based on the court's "sound discretion," declining to hold the State to a clear and convincing burden of proof, as urged by respondent. The appellate court reversed. Although also rejecting a clear and convincing standard, the appellate court held that the State must demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that termination of parental rights is in the minor's best interests, and that the State had failed to meet its burden in this case. 338 Ill.App.3d 133, 272 Ill.Dec. 829, 788 N.E.2d 133. For the reasons discussed below, we affirm in part and reverse in part and remand for further proceedings.

818 N.E.2d 1219

On February 1, 1998, respondent, Brenda T., took her four-year-old son, D.T., to the emergency room of Ravenswood Hospital. D.T. was in severe pain from an injury to his scrotum inflicted by respondent's boyfriend at least 48 hours earlier. The injury was caused by repetitive blunt blows to the scrotum. D.T. was transferred to Children's Memorial Hospital, where he underwent surgery to determine whether castration would be necessary. In addition to this injury, multiple bruises to D.T.'s face, arm, back, buttock and thigh were apparent. A linear bruise on his cheek had the characteristic appearance of a mark left by an open-hand slap. D.T. tolerated the surgery well, and although castration was unnecessary, the injury left D.T. with an increased risk of infertility later in life.

D.T. was discharged from the hospital on February 4, 1998, and taken into protective custody. The trial court later placed guardianship of D.T. in the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and appointed the Cook County public guardian as D.T.'s attorney and guardian ad litem (GAL). After living in a group home for several months, in August, 1998, D.T. was placed in a foster home, where he resided continuously through at least June 2001. At the time of the underlying proceedings, D.T. was participating in individual therapy and performing well academically, but was experiencing some problems socially in school. The foster mother expressed her desire to adopt D.T.

Following the removal of D.T. from respondent's custody, respondent participated in parenting classes, individual therapy, and domestic abuse counseling in accordance with the DCFS client service plans. Respondent attended all scheduled visits with D.T. and was rated satisfactory on service plan tasks. She reportedly made slow but steady progress in therapy.

On July 19, 1999, the State filed a petition seeking termination of respondent's parental rights and appointment of a guardian with the right to consent to adoption. Hearing on the unfitness portion of the State's petition began in September 2000. Completion of the unfitness hearing was delayed pending a determination of the applicability of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (25 U.S.C. § 1901 et seq. (1994)). Ultimately, on April 6, 2001, after hearing testimony from respondent, the foster mother, the DCFS investigator, caseworkers, counselors, and other service providers, the trial court determined that the State had demonstrated, by clear and convincing evidence, that respondent was unfit in that she failed to protect D.T. from an environment injurious to his welfare. Hearing on the best-interests portion of the State's petition commenced the following month, and on June 8, 2001, the trial court found, within its "sound discretion," that it was in D.T.'s best interest to terminate respondent's parental rights.1 At the time of the hearing, respondent was not able to parent D.T. without supervision. Respondent appealed, challenging the trial court's finding of unfitness, as well as its decision to terminate parental rights.

The appellate court affirmed the finding of unfitness and held that a preponderance of the evidence standard, which the State had failed to satisfy, applies at a best-interests hearing. The appellate court reversed the trial court's order terminating parental rights and remanded the matter for further proceedings.

818 N.E.2d 1220
338 Ill.App.3d at 154-55, 272 Ill.Dec. 829, 788 N.E.2d 133. We allowed the GAL's petition for leave to appeal (see 177 Ill.2d R. 315), and permitted the Cook County State's Attorney to join in that appeal. We also allowed the Loyola Childlaw Center and the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform leave to file a joint amicus curiae brief in support of respondent. See 155 Ill.2d R. 345. We note that respondent has requested cross-relief, pressing her claim that a clear and convincing standard of proof is required at the best-interests hearing. See 177 Ill.2d R. 315(g); 155 Ill.2d R. 318(a). Respondent does not challenge the appellate court's decision affirming the trial court's finding of unfitness. Because our determination of the appropriate standard of proof at a best-interests hearing involves an issue of law, our review proceeds de novo. See In re C.N., 196 Ill.2d 181, 203, 256 Ill.Dec. 788, 752 N.E.2d 1030 (2001)


Proceedings to terminate parental rights are governed principally by the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (705 ILCS 405/1-1 et seq. (West 2000)) and the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/1 et seq. (West 2000)). Generally, under the Juvenile Court Act, where a child is adjudicated abused, neglected or dependent, and the State seeks to free the child for adoption, unless the parent consents, the State must first establish that the parent is "unfit" under one or more of the grounds set forth in the Adoption Act. 705 ILCS 405/2-29 (West 2000); 750 ILCS 50/1(D) (West 2000). If the trial court finds the parent to be unfit, the court then determines whether it is in the best interests of the minor that parental rights be terminated. 705 ILCS 405/2-29(2) (West 2000).

The State does not dispute that it bears the burden of proof when it files a petition to terminate parental rights. The Juvenile Court Act expressly sets forth the State's burden during the first step of the termination process, the unfitness hearing. The statute states that parental unfitness must be based upon "clear and convincing evidence." 705 ILCS 405/2-29(2), (4) (West 2000). Although the Juvenile Court Act does not expressly set forth the State's burden during the second step of the termination process, the best-interests hearing, the statute does provide some guidance. The Juvenile Court Act states: "The standard of proof and the rules of evidence in the nature of civil proceedings in this State are applicable to proceedings under this Article." 705 ILCS 405/2-18(1) (West 2000). "[T]his Article" refers to article II of the Juvenile Court Act, titled "Abused, Neglected or Dependent Minors," and includes the section under which the termination petition in this case was filed. See 705 ILCS 405/2-29 (West 2000). The standard of proof in civil proceedings typically is either a "preponderance" or "clear and convincing." See M. Graham, Cleary & Graham's Handbook of Illinois Evidence § 301.6 (8th ed.2004); Bazydlo v. Volant, 164 Ill.2d 207, 212-13, 207 Ill.Dec. 311, 647 N.E.2d 273 (1995). Thus, the language of the Juvenile Court Act suggests that one of these two standards of proof must apply at a best-interests hearing.2 The appellate court determined

818 N.E.2d 1221
that a preponderance standard is appropriate. 338 Ill.App.3d at 154, 272 Ill.Dec. 829, 788 N.E.2d 133

The GAL and the State, however, argue that the appropriate standard of proof is "sound discretion." Under this standard, as explained by the State, a trial judge's decision to terminate parental rights would not rest on a quantitative measure of the evidence. Indeed, according to the State, "sound discretion" permits the trial court "to reject perhaps all of the evidence submitted by a party without risk of being reversed based on some perceived balance of the evidentiary scale." The GAL adds that the trial judge's best-interests ruling would be "presumptively correct" on review.

In support of their position, the State and the GAL note that the trial court, in making a best-interests determination, is charged with the daunting task of weighing and balancing the following statutory factors, all in light of the child's age and developmental needs:

"(a) the physical safety and welfare of the child * * *;
(b) the development of the child's identity;
(c) the child's background and ties * * *;
(d) the child's sense of attachments, including:
(i) where the child actually feels love, attachment, and a sense of being valued * * *;
(ii) the child's sense of security;
(iii) the child's sense of familiarity;
(iv) continuity of affection for the child;
(v) the least disruptive placement alternative for the child;
(e) the child's wishes and long-term goals;
(f) the child's

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