Quick Take on Illinois Supreme Court Opinion Issued Thursday, December 2, 2021
The Illinois Supreme Court issued one opinion on Thursday, December 2.
In re Z.L. , 2021 IL 126931
By Michael T. Reagan, Law Offices of Michael T. Reagan
The circuit court of Cook County adjudicated Z.L. and Z.L.’s siblings to be abused and neglected minors within the meaning of the Juvenile Court Act and made those minors wards of the court. The appellate court reversed the circuit court’s findings of abuse and neglect and remanded for compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act, 25 U.S.C. ¶1912(a). Here, the supreme court reversed the appellate court, affirmed the circuit court, and remanded for further proceedings.
K.G. and E.L., Sr. had five children, one of whom died at the age of 5 weeks. That circumstance led to neglect proceedings which were the subject of a different court proceeding and appellate opinion. Germane to this appeal, K.G. left the children with E.L., Sr. to attend a job interview. E.L., Sr. later called K.G. and stated that Z.L. had stopped breathing but that he had performed CPR which resulted in resumption of breathing. After K.G. returned home, she took the child to a pediatrician’s office, which was closed. She was advised by telephone to take the child to the emergency room, but left the ER before receiving treatment because the wait was too long and the child seemed fine. Further examination and treatment took place the next day. Although there are conflicting medical opinions in this record, the diagnosis that day was of injuries consistent with abusive head trauma. DCFS removed all four children from the home, and the State filed petitions for adjudication of wardship. The State alleged that Z.L. was abused due to physical abuse as well as neglected, and that the siblings were both abused and neglected due to an injurious environment. The Public Guardian was appointed as attorney and GAL for the children. The Public Defender was appointed for K.G., and the Public Defender Child Protection Conflict Unit was appointed for E.L., Sr.
In the circuit court’s adjudication ruling, the court found that Z.L. was physically abused, abused due to a substantial risk of injury, and neglected due to both a lack of necessary care and to an injurious environment. The court also ordered that the siblings were neglected due to the injurious environment.
In its subsequent dispositional order, the court found the parents “unable, but not unfit” to parent their children, and made the children wards of the court, with DCFS as guardian.
K.G. appealed both orders. In the appellate court, the parties agreed that the cause had to be remanded for compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act. Though interesting, the implications of that Act are not central to this opinion.
The appellate court pointed to what it regarded to be an absence of required proof, and characterized the circuit court ruling as having relied exclusively on the doctrine of anticipatory neglect. The appellate court reversed and remanded.
The GAL’s petition for leave to appeal on behalf of the minors was granted, and the court also granted the State’s motion to align itself as appellant along with the minors. The court allowed amicus briefs from fifteen organizations.
Chief Justice Anne M. Burke’s opinion for a complete and unanimous court sets out a detailed description of the steps and burdens involved in a proceeding for adjudication of wardship, and also grounds its opinion on the application on the pertinent standards of review. The first step is an adjudicatory hearing, in which the only question is whether or not the child is neglected, not whether the parents are neglectful. If a finding of abuse or neglect is made, then the court is to move to the next step, the dispositional hearing. At that time, the court is to determine whether the minor should be made a ward of the court. In doing so, the court may consider the acts or omissions of the parents.
A primary theme of the court’s opinion is that focus must be maintained on the relevant questions during the two separate steps of a hearing on the petition. One aspect of that focus is that the court rejected K.G.’s argument that culpability for an injury must be evaluated at the adjudicatory stage. Relying on its own precedent and the statute, the court stated that the focus is to be exclusively on the status of the child, with no consideration given to the acts of the parents in arriving at a determination of neglect. A fundamental holding of the supreme court was that “the appellate court incorrectly looked to K.G.’s culpability, or lack thereof, in reversing the trial court’s findings of abuse and neglect.” The court also took up multiple detailed contentions of error which will not be covered in this summary.
K.G. also contended that separate from the appellate court’s analysis, the circuit court’s finding of abuse and neglect must be reversed upon evaluation of the competing expert testimony. The supreme court disagreed, saying that the trial judge was in the best position to resolve those conflicts.
K.G. asked the court to declare the “injurious environment” category of neglect unconstitutionally vague. The court stated that the issue was forfeited because it had not been raised below, but nonetheless overlooked the forfeiture “given the fundamental liberty interests of a parent to raise and care for her children as protected by the United States Constitution.” The court then disagreed with the claim of unconstitutionality. “Child neglect is by its very nature incapable of a precise and detailed definition,” relying upon Illinois appellate and Supreme Court of the United States authority.
The appellate court’s reversal of the trial court’s finding of abuse and neglect was reversed. The supreme court confirmed the trial court’s conclusion that K.G. was unable, at the time of the hearing, to parent the children. Without detailed discussion, the court agreed that the case must be remanded for proof of compliance with Indian Child Welfare Act.