People v. Alex J. (In re Aai. J.)

Decision Date16 December 2020
Docket NumberNO. 4-20-0337 cons.,NO. 4-20-0336,4-20-0336,4-20-0337 cons.
Citation2020 IL App (4th) 200336 -U
PartiesIn re Aai. J., a Minor (The People of the State of Illinois, Petitioner-Appellee, v. Alex J., Respondent-Appellant). In re Aar. J., a Minor (The People of the State of Illinois, Petitioner-Appellee, v. Alex J., Respondent-Appellant).
CourtUnited States Appellate Court of Illinois

NOTICE

This order was filed under Supreme Court Rule 23 and may not be cited as precedent by any party except in the limited circumstances allowed under Rule 23(e)(1).

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Woodford County

No. 18JA41

No. 18JA42

Honorable Charles M. Feeney III, Judge Presiding.

JUSTICE KNECHT delivered the judgment of the court.

Justices Turner and Harris concurred in the judgment.

ORDER

¶ 1 Held: The appellate court affirmed the trial court's judgments, concluding (1) the court's best-interest findings were not against the manifest weight of the evidence and (2) respondent did not receive ineffective assistance of trial counsel.

¶ 2 Respondent father, Alex J., appeals from the trial court's judgments terminating his parental rights to Aai. J. (born January 17, 2015) and Aar. J. (born March 23, 2016). On appeal, respondent argues (1) the court's best-interest findings are against the manifest weight of the evidence and (2) his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to present testimony from additional witnesses at the best-interest hearing. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the trial court's judgments terminating respondent's parental rights.

¶ 3 I. BACKGROUND

¶ 4 Respondent and Samantha T. are the minors' biological parents. Samantha T.'s parental rights to the minors were terminated pursuant to a voluntary and irrevocable surrender, and she is not a party to this appeal.

¶ 5 A. Adjudications of Neglected

¶ 6 In October 2018, the State filed petitions for adjudication of wardship, alleging, in part, the minors were neglected in that they were subject to an environment injurious to their welfare because their residence was "extremely dirty, smells horrible, and has animal feces in living areas of the home." 705 ILCS 405/2-3(1)(b) (West 2016). That same month, the trial court appointed respondent counsel and entered orders granting temporary custody to the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

¶ 7 On November 30, 2018, the trial court entered adjudicatory orders finding the minors to be neglected. As a factual basis, the court indicated, in part, the "living conditions of [respondent's] residence are deplorable."

¶ 8 In January 2019, the trial court entered dispositional orders adjudicating the minors wards of the court and placing guardianship and custody with DCFS.

¶ 9 B. Petitions to Terminate Parental Rights

¶ 10 In December 2019, the State filed petitions to terminate respondent's parental rights to the minors. In its petitions, the State alleged respondent was an unfit parent as he (1) failed to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis for the removal of the minors during certain nine-month periods following the adjudications of neglected (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m)(i) (West 2018)), namely December 1, 2018, to September 1, 2019, and March 12,2019, to December 12, 2019; and (2) failed to make reasonable progress toward the return of the minors to his care within certain nine-month periods following the adjudications of neglected, namely December 1, 2018, to September 1, 2019, and March 12, 2019, to December 12, 2019 (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m)(ii) (West 2018)). The State further alleged it was in the minors' best interests to terminate respondent's parental rights and appoint DCFS as guardian with the power to consent to adoption.

¶ 11 C. Unfitness Admission

¶ 12 At a February 2020 hearing, respondent admitted to the allegations of unfitness set forth in the State's petitions to terminate parental rights. The State provided the following factual basis in support of the admission:

"[W]itnesses would testify that case[]workers from [FamilyCore] and [DCFS] would state that [respondent] has been made aware of what he needs to do as far as services, including drug drops, mental health counseling, maintaining employment, reporting to case[]workers. If I didn't say it, drug and alcohol evaluation and treatment with drops. He has not completed the drops for a substantial period of time, many months. On the last review period especially he had not completed any drug drops. He had not completed parenting classes, mental health counseling as requested through the service plan in any of these time periods. And he has not—he has not kept in total contact at all times with the case[]worker[s] during the times alleged, December 1st, 2018, to September 1st, 2019, as well as March 12th, 2019, to December12th, 2019.
The evidence would show that progress and efforts has not been reasonable by [respondent], and there has not been much progress towards the return home of the minors during any of those reporting periods or nine-month periods."

Respondent, through counsel, acknowledged the State could substantiate the factual basis. The trial court accepted respondent's unfitness admission, finding it to be knowingly and voluntarily made and supported by a sufficient factual basis.

¶ 13 D. Best-Interest Hearing

¶ 14 In June 2020, the trial court conducted a best-interest hearing. The court received a best-interest report and an addendum. The court heard testimony from Andrea J., the minors' foster mother, respondent, and the caseworker who had served on the minors' cases since October 2019 and had prepared the best-interest report and the addendum. The following is gleaned from the evidence and testimony presented.

¶ 15 In October 2018, the minors were taken into DCFS care after police responded to the home where the minors resided with respondent and his parents. The police were dispatched to the home due to a domestic dispute between respondent and his father. Inside the home, there was reportedly garbage all over, a foul odor, several dogs running around, and the presence of flies. The minors' feet were black. At the minors' initial health exams, it was discovered Aar. J. had splinters in his right foot, and Aai. J. had several insect bites. Respondent, respondent's parents, and police agreed the home was unsafe and unacceptable for children.

¶ 16 After the minors were taken into DCFS care, they were placed with their foster mother, who was also their paternal aunt. They then remained with their foster mother during thependency of their cases. The minors were happy and healthy. The minors and their foster mother were bonded to each other. The minors referred to their foster mother as "mom." They looked to her for safety and support. The minors' needs and interests were being met by their foster mother. They attended medical appointments and took required medications. They attended the same preschool. The foster mother testified about recently spending over $1000 from a tax refund on school clothes and shoes for the minors. The minors attended church, where they had made friends. They also had made friends from school and from the neighborhood where they resided. The minors attended family gatherings. Given the familial relationship between the foster mother and respondent, respondent was present at the family gatherings with DCFS approval. The minors' foster mother was willing to adopt the minors if respondent's parental rights were terminated. If adopted, the foster mother testified she would permit respondent to spend time with the minors only if it was supervised.

¶ 17 Respondent had cared for the minors since their birth. A bond existed between the minors and respondent. The foster mother testified the minors recognized respondent as their father and looked forward to interacting with him. Respondent's attendance at weekly visitation throughout the minors' cases was inconsistent. Respondent reported to the foster mother his lack of attendance was due to his vehicle not working, not having gas for his vehicle, or being sick. After visitation was changed from weekly to monthly earlier that year, respondent's attendance at visitation improved. At one point, respondent was given approval to attend a scheduled surgery where Aai. J. would have his tonsils and adenoids removed. Respondent arrived an hour after Aai. J. had gone into surgery. Respondent's inconsistent attendance at visitations made a demonstrable, negative impact on the minors. At one point, Aai. J. looked to his foster mother for support after believing respondent's inconsistencies were his fault. There were also instances where the minorsdid not include respondent as part of their family for school projects and where they stated they wished to be adopted. Aai. J. asked Santa Claus if he could be adopted for Christmas.

¶ 18 As part of his required services, respondent was to fully cooperate with DCFS and its designees, complete parenting classes, complete a mental health assessment and any recommended treatment, complete a drug and alcohol assessment and any recommended treatment, and complete two random drug drops per month. Respondent's cooperation with DCFS and its designees was inconsistent. Respondent had not completed parenting classes. He started the classes in 2020 but had to retake them as he did not complete all of them. Respondent testified he did not start the classes until 2020 because he had enrollment issues. Respondent did not complete the mental health assessment. Respondent testified he previously completed a mental health assessment but, because the assessor was not properly trained, he had to redo the assessment and was waiting on an agency to provide him with another assessment. Respondent completed a drug and alcohol assessment. Respondent testified he completed "level 2 treatment" and was still working on "level 1" treatment. The caseworker testified she had no information about respondent's treatment as respondent's authorization for release of information...

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