MOUNT VERNON — The Fifth District Appellate Court has turned down a recently released felon's request for parental rights over a child whom he has barely seen and does not support.
In their eight-page ruling issued July 22, the appellate court affirmed a Madison County Circuit Court ruling in February that terminated the parental rights of Kohl Bertels over his four year old daughter, identified in court records as "P.J.H." The circuit court's ruling followed Benjamin Gossard and Cheryl Hurst's petition to allow Gossard to adopt her.
Hurst is P.J.H.'s mother.
The appellate court affirmed the lower court's finding that Bertels' efforts to visit P.J.H. "were lacking and were not thwarted in any way by" Hurst "who rightfully refused visitation due to Kohl’s alcohol and drug use," Justice James R. Moore wrote. "For all of these reasons, we decline to disturb the circuit court's findings or order."
Justices Judy Cates and Melissa A. Chapman concurred with the ruling.
In their petition filed in the Madison County Circuit Court in June 2018, the parties "had failed to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern, or responsibility as to her welfare," the ruling states. "The petition further alleged that Kohl had continuously neglected, abandoned, and deserted P.J.H. For these reasons, the petition alleged that Kohl was an unfit parent."
Bertals, who at the time of the petition was incarcerated and on his third felony conviction, informed the circuit court that he did not want to lose his parental rights.
The following November, the guardian ad litem assigned to the case by the circuit court agreed that Bertals' parental rights should be terminated. The guardian ad litem opined that Bertals "was depraved based on his felony convictions" and that he "had no meaningful relationship with P.J.H. and had not seen or supported her during the prior three years, including periods when he was not incarcerated," the ruling states.
Bertals, who was expected to be released this past July, testified among other things that he once hosted a birthday party at his home for P.J.H, tried to send her toys at Christmas and tried to see the child but Hurst "told him to stop calling," the ruling states.
Bertals admitted he never paid child support and blamed his crimes on his drug use, but he said he "was willing to do whatever it took to remain in P.J.H.'s life," the ruling states.
Gossard and Hurst testified that Gossard filled the "role as a father figure to P.J.H. for nearly all of her life," Moore wrote.
The circuit court found P.J.H.'s best interests would be for Bertals' parental rights to be terminated. Bertals appealed.
"The circuit court found that it was unreasonable to expect Cheryl to allow P.J.H. to have visitation with Kohl on the occasions that he did request such visitation due to Kohl's use of alcohol and drugs," Moore wrote. "In addition the circuit court held that it was incumbent upon Kohl to seek his rights to P.J.H. in court and to incur the attendant responsibilities, including the payment of support. We find evidence in the record, as outlined above, to support these findings."