In re MH

Decision Date24 May 2001
Docket NumberNo. 89599.,89599.
Citation256 Ill.Dec. 297,196 Ill.2d 356,751 N.E.2d 1134
PartiesIn re M.H. et al., Minors (The People of the State of Illinois, Appellant, v. V.D., Appellee).
CourtIllinois Supreme Court

James E. Ryan, Attorney General, Springfield, and Paul A. Logli State's Attorney, Rockford (Joel D. Bertocchi, Solicitor General, William L. Browers and Anne S. Bagby, Assistant Attorneys General, Chicago, and Norbert J. Goetten, Martin P. Moltz and Sally A. Swiss, Office of the State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor, Elgin, of counsel), for the People.

Donald P. Sullivan, Rockford, for appellee.

Justice GARMAN delivered the opinion of the court:

In July 1998, the State filed a "Supplemental Petition for Termination of Parental Rights and Power to Consent to Adoption" (supplemental petition) with respect to each of respondent V.D.'s two minor daughters, M.H. and T.H. Respondent admitted to count III of the supplemental petitions, which alleged that she failed to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis of the minors' removal or to make reasonable progress toward the return of the minors to her within 12 months after adjudication of neglect. The circuit court of Winnebago County, after inquiring whether respondent understood that she had a right to require the State to prove her unfit, accepted respondent's admission to count III. No factual basis was elicited before the circuit court accepted the admission of unfitness. Following a best interests hearing, respondent's parental rights were terminated.

On appeal, respondent argued that the State should have elicited a factual basis prior to accepting her admission, as the State is required to do when a criminal defendant enters a guilty plea pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 402(c) (177 Ill.2d R. 402(c)). The appellate court agreed and reversed and remanded. 313 Ill.App.3d 205, 246 Ill.Dec. 86, 729 N.E.2d 86. We granted the State's petition for leave to appeal pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 315 (177 Ill.2d R. 315).

BACKGROUND

Respondent has six children. This appeal involves respondent's parental rights only with respect to M.H., born on April 28, 1993, and T.H., born on June 3, 1989. On August 1, 1995, the circuit court adjudicated M.H. and T.H. neglected because they lived in an environment injurious to their welfare in that one of their brothers, J.H., played with matches and on occasion set things on fire, thereby placing M.H. and T.H. at risk of harm. The circuit court appointed the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) as the minors' guardian and custodian and allowed DCFS to place the children with respondent. In February 1996, M.H. and T.H. were removed from respondent's custody because of poor conditions in the home and were placed with respondent's sister. Later, M.H. and T.H. were placed in separate foster homes.

After M.H. and T.H. were adjudicated neglected, a hearing was held in February 1998, regarding respondent's youngest son, Mi. H. During the hearing, respondent stipulated that M.H. and T.H. had been sexually molested by their brothers and that respondent had failed to protect them. Based on this stipulation, evidence, and testimony, the circuit court found Mi. H. to be an abused minor and made him a ward of the court.

In July 1998, the State filed two supplemental petitions for termination of respondent's parental rights with respect to M.H. and T.H. The petitions alleged that respondent was unfit because she (1) failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern, or responsibility as to the minors' welfare (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(b) (West 1996)); (2) failed to protect the minors from conditions that were injurious to their welfare (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(g) (West 1996)); and (3) failed to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis of the minors' removal, or to make reasonable progress toward the return of the minors to her within 12 months after the adjudication of neglect (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m) (West 1996)).

During the January 1999 termination hearing, the State informed the court that respondent would admit that she failed to make reasonable progress towards the return of M.H. and T.H. to her home. Respondent's attorney stated that he had thoroughly discussed respondent's admission with her. The court then asked respondent whether she understood her right to have the State prove by clear and convincing evidence that she was unfit:

"THE COURT: Okay. I want to be clear on the record, [V.D.], that you have a right of requiring [that] the State prove the allegations, including the allegations that you failed to make reasonable progress on your service plan, that the State has a very high burden of proof, they can demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that you failed to follow through or failed to progress, basically, in terms of meeting your service plan goals, finishing whatever classes or counseling that was required in order that [M.H.] and [T.H.] can be returned to you. Do you understand that you have the right to require that the State present a trial, and if you agree to this you are giving up your right to that?
MR. BRENNER [respondent's attorney]: [V.D.]?
THE COURT: Did you want to take a moment to talk to your attorney more? You are hesitating, so I don't want to be—This is a big step, and I want you to be comfortable with it, and I want your [sic] to understand what's being said. What I understand is if you admit to this then the question becomes, at the point in time we set the second portion of it. It's a two-part consideration, first the unfitness issue and then what's in the best interests, and before anything would be done affecting your parental rights findings would have to be made. It would have to be found it would not be in the children's best interests to go home with you, or whatever, but the first part is—what we are talking about today—and you do have the right to require the State to prove that you are unfit, so if you give up that right I just want that to be made with your understanding and your agreement. Do you understand that?
[RESPONDENT]: Yeah.
THE COURT: Are you agreeable with that?
[RESPONDENT]: Yeah."

Without further evidence, the court accepted respondent's admission.

In April and June of 1999, the circuit court held hearings on the best interests of M.H. and T.H. Based on the testimony of caseworkers, respondent, and respondent's husband, the circuit court found that it was in the best interests of M.H. and T.H. that respondent's parental rights be terminated.

The appellate court for the second district reversed, holding that the circuit court was required to determine that a factual basis existed for respondent's admission of unfitness. The appellate court analogized termination of parental rights proceedings to criminal proceedings and stated that, although Supreme Court Rule 402(c) does not directly apply to admissions of parental unfitness, the precautionary measures of Rule 402(c) should apply in parental rights termination proceedings. 313 Ill.App.3d at 212, 246 Ill.Dec. 86, 729 N.E.2d 86.

The court relied on Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 762, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 1399, 71 L.Ed.2d 599, 612 (1982), in which the United States Supreme Court stated that "the factfinding stage of a state-initiated permanent neglect proceeding bears many of the indicia of a criminal trial." The appellate court concluded that the protection afforded by a factual-basis inquiry is "necessary" and will ensure that a parent's admission is knowing and voluntary. 313 Ill.App.3d at 215, 246 Ill.Dec. 86, 729 N.E.2d 86. The appellate court noted that no facts were elicited at the hearing pertaining to respondent's unfitness, and the supplemental petitions contained only general allegations. Relying on In re D.L., 191 Ill.2d 1, 245 Ill.Dec. 256, 727 N.E.2d 990 (2000), the court rejected the State's argument that there was sufficient evidence to accept respondent's admission based on the evidence presented at the February 1998 adjudicatory and subsequent best interests hearings regarding respondent's son, Mi. H. The court concluded that since D.L. allowed for consideration of the parents' conduct only within the 12 months following the adjudication of neglect, abuse, or dependency, the circuit court could consider evidence of respondent's reasonable progress only from August 1, 1995, to August 1, 1996. 313 Ill.App.3d at 216, 246 Ill.Dec. 86, 729 N.E.2d 86. The appellate court vacated respondent's admission of unfitness for lack of a factual-basis determination, reversed the order terminating respondent's parental rights, and remanded the cause to the circuit court for a new hearing to determine respondent's fitness.

ANALYSIS

We first address the appropriate standard of review. Ordinarily, a circuit court's finding as to fitness is afforded great deference on review. The circuit court is in the best position to make factual findings and to assess the credibility of witnesses; accordingly, a reviewing court will reverse a circuit court's ruling only if it is against the manifest weight of the evidence. In re Adoption of Syck, 138 Ill.2d 255, 274, 149 Ill.Dec. 710, 562 N.E.2d 174 (1990). In the present case, however, the circuit court's ruling was based not on testimony or factual findings, but solely on respondent's admission. Therefore, the question presented in this case, whether the circuit court was required to elicit a factual basis prior to accepting respondent's admission, is a question of law and will be reviewed de novo. Woods v. Cole, 181 Ill.2d 512, 516, 230 Ill.Dec. 204, 693 N.E.2d 333 (1998).

The fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution provides that no state shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." U.S. Const., amend. XIV, § 1. The due process clause "guarantees more than fair process" as it also "provides heightened protection against government interference with certain fundamental...

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