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A Mt. Vernon, Ill., judge appears to be the first to declare unconstitutional a 7-year-old statutory right to immediately appeal “permanency” orders, which are akin to court-monitored action plans designed to help families sort out their special problems in child abuse cases before parental rights can be terminated. Before the 1993 legislative amendment to the Juvenile Court Act and even since then, most Illinois lawyers and judges have assumed permanency orders were temporary or changeable, the name notwithstanding. As such, they were never considered appealable under the Illinois Supreme Court’s rules of procedure, at least, until a truly “final” order was entered in a given child abuse case. But then in June, a Jefferson County mother accused of neglect was confronted with a permanency order that frightened her because it called for “substitute care pending termination.” And her lawyer, taking note of the statutory amendment, took the extraordinary step of filing an appeal in an attempt to at least delay the government’s move to temporarily place his client’s three children in a foster home. Lawyers for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services moved the trial court to proceed with the agency’s foster home proposal and to ignore the mother’s appeal. And the mother’s attorney, public defender Robert C. Verhines, responded by asking the court to stay the DCSF motion pending his appeal. On July 17, Presiding Judge James M. Wexstten of the 2nd Judicial Circuit essentially sided with the DCFS. According to Wexstten’s order, the state legislature’s well-intentioned effort to give some measure of protection to parents in such suspected abuse scenarios was an unconstitutional attempt to “circumvent the power of the Supreme Court in adopting its own rules.” In trying to level the playing field between accused parents and the DCSF, added James W. Henson, the guardian ad litem representing the mother’s three children, the state legislature had also ironically enacted a new right to appeal that could delay the typical permanency hearing by “months,” even “years,” despite its well-publicized effort in recent sessions to enact other measures designed to “speed up the whole process” for everyone’s sake. Indeed, Henson worried that, had Wexstten not held the relatively obscure appeal provision unconstitutional, lawyers defending threatened parents all over the state could have invoked it on behalf of their clients “once word of what happened here got out.” Wexstten’s order will be appealed, said Verhines on Wednesday, probably directly to the Illinois Supreme Court because of the constitutional issue involved. The attorney for the father in the case, Albion sole practitioner Jerry Crisel, could not immediately be reached for comment.

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