On appeal from Essex County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
Allcorn, Morgan and Francis. The opinion of the court was delivered by Morgan, J.A.D.
This is an appeal by a natural mother from an order severing parental ties with and granting guardianship of her son J.R. (now seven years of age) to the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) under N.J.S.A. 30:4C 15(c) and (d), in anticipation of his adoption by the foster parents with whom he has continuously lived since placement at six months of age. In an oral opinion delivered at the close of a plenary hearing the trial judge found that the mother had failed to plan for her child for at least a year as the basis for the severance.
The essential facts are as follows: J.R. was born on March 6, 1973 the second child of M.R. the appellant herein. The first child, Luis, was by a different father. Soon after J.R.'s birth the family unit moved into the paternal grandmother's house
where they lived for some time in increasing marital disharmony. The marriage was apparently a tempestuous one, marked by frequent arguments and little money, and in June 1973 appellant mother left the home.
After she left, two criminal complaints were lodged against her. One charged her with assault and battery on her husband, a charge ultimately withdrawn. The other charged an assault and battery against her first born son, Luis. The disposition of that charge is unclear. Although appellant does not remember doing so, the record suggests that she either pleaded guilty or was found guilty. In any event, the trial judge found these circumstances to be of no moment in reaching his conclusions in this matter:
In July 1973 appellant corresponded with her estranged husband, seeking a reconciliation. Her husband responded. She appeared in court on August 15, 1973 to answer the assault charges against her first son and it was on this date that both parents agreed to place both children in the custody of DYFS until a joint decision between DYFS and the parents was reached. Visitation rights were to be arranged by DYFS and both parents agreed to have the children placed separately. Both parents agreed to accept casework services from DYFS and family counseling.
Ultimately Luis found his way to the home of his maternal grandparents. On November 1, 1973 J.R. was placed in the foster home where he has resided to this day. The trial judge viewed J.R.'s placement with DYFS as a voluntary one caused by the necessities of appellant's turbulent marriage and precarious finances.
Because the infrequency of appellant's visits with DYFS and J.R. provided one of the essential reasons for the trial court action, the events attendant thereto will be dealt with in greater
detail. Appellant did not attempt to visit her son until February 11, 1974, over three months after placement in the foster setting, when it appears that she called DYFS to report a change in her address. At this time she made her first request to visit J.R. and did so, in the DYFS office on March 11, 1974.
The next recorded communication by appellant was a phone call to the DYFS office in November 1974, about eight months after the prior visit with J.R. and a year after his placement with the foster family. The caseworker was not, however, in the office, and nothing was accomplished. Appellant relates an attempted contact in June 1974 in which she sought to visit J.R. but was rebuffed because she had failed to maintain contact. The DYFS case record does not reflect this attempt; the trial judge made no specific finding as to this fact.
Thus, after the March 11, 1974 visit, appellant's only corroborated contact was her fruitless call of November 1974. Her next contact with DYFS came more than 13 months later, after the case file had been assigned to a new social worker, in December 1975. The new social worker saw appellant for the first time on January 28, 1976. Hence, there was no contact between appellant and DYFS during the entire year of 1975 and DYFS claims to have been unaware of appellant's whereabouts.
Appellant's efforts to explain the reasons for her remoteness from her son and DYFS are somewhat less than satisfactory. She claims she had a miscarriage, tried to commit suicide and was hospitalized in October 1975. She also claims that in ...