There are few proceedings in the Illinois courts more upsetting than those involving child abuse and neglect and/or termination of parental rights. Not only are the facts leading up to the proceeding universally horrible, the futures of the parties involved, especially the minor children, is almost always very bleak. Job security for cops and therapists, if you will.
I came across this particularly awful story in the recent Rule 23 order, In re A.K., 2013 IL App (4th) 130012-U, ¶ 5 (May 6, 2013):
"The State filed a petition for adjudication of neglect as to the minor A.K (born May 25, 2010) in the Macon County circuit court. In support of the petition, the State claimed respondent mother (hereinafter referred to as Misty), age 18, and A.K. were removed from Misty's boyfriend's (hereinafter referred to as Zach) residence in Decatur because, due to Zach's status as a registered juvenile sex offender, she and A.K. were not authorized to live with him in agency housing as she previously had been warned. Further, Misty was asked to leave a shelter for not complying with its rules and she refused other shelter opportunities. Both Misty and A.K. were diagnosed with scabies. These allegations were the bases for two counts of neglect—medical and environmental. The petition further alleged respondent father (hereinafter referred to as Jerry) was Misty's stepfather and that he had charges pending against him for the alleged sexual abuse against Misty, an incident which resulted in Misty's pregnancy and A.K.'s birth. *** Substance-abuse counseling was added as a required task in January 2012, after Misty tested positive for marijuana while pregnant with another baby. *** She said she mistakenly thought she was smoking a tobacco cigarette but later discovered it was marijuana."
Both in private practice at Bruno Law Offices in Urbana, and during my work in the Illinois Appellate Court, I've seen my fair share of trial records in child abuse and neglect/ termination of parental rights proceedings. Unfortunately, I've seen worse than this. The bench and bar should greatly appreciate the judges, attorneys, case workers, and foster parents who do their best to deal with these incredibly dispiriting lose-lose situations.
It is equally important, however, to avoid systematic fatigue that leads to half-hearted representation of mothers and fathers whose fundamental right to raise their children is at stake. In some of the trial records and transcripts I've seen, court-appointed advocates for parents have stipulated to 100-page DCFS reports consisting almost entirely of hearsay. Those reports are often the primary piece of the State's evidence against the parent.
In wardship proceedings, the parent's attorney will often convince their client to stipulate to one of the several counts of neglect in exchange for the State agreeing to drop the other counts. What the parent might not know at that point is that the kid will almost always be placed in shelter care, regardless of whether the court makes one or ten findings of neglect.
Advocates should be mindful that in abuse and neglect proceedings, the standard of proof and rules of evidence are the same as any other civil proceeding in Illinois. 705 ILCS 405/2-18. In parental fitness hearings, the standard is even greater and the State must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the parent is unfit under one of the definitions in 750 ILCS 50/1(D).
ON THE OTHER HAND, it's very obvious to me that many parents, especially fathers, who go through abuse and neglect / termination proceedings are completely indifferent to the outcome. When the judge terminates the parent's parental rights, the judge immediately turns to the parent and offers them a cost-free appeal. "Sure," the parent says. I bet most of those fathers would decline if the appeal cost $10 out of their pocket. I could understand if an attorney appointed to represent a parent like that felt a stronger moral obligation toward the innocent child than the terrible parent he or she is appointed to represent. What I suspect is going on in many of these cases is that the attorney's revulsion toward the client-parent, and sympathy for the child, overwhelms the duty to zealously advocate.