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In re Guardianship of A.A.M.

Decided: December 1, 1993.


On appeal from Superior Court, Chancery Division, Family Part, Camden County.

Michels, Kestin and Wefing. The opinion of the court was delivered by Wefing, J.s.c. (temporarily assigned). Kestin, J.A.D., Concurring.


This matter is before the court on appeal from a judgment of the Superior Court, Chancery Division, Family Part, which denied the application of the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) to terminate the parental rights of P.L.M. in connection with her daughter A.A.M. Although we recognize that applications to terminate parental rights pose to our judicial system "an almost insoluble dilemma," New Jersey Div. of Youth & Family Services v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591, 599, 512 A.2d 438 (1986) (hereinafter " A.W. "), our review of the record in this case has led us to conclude that the judgment entered below should be reversed. We are compelled to set forth the record in this matter at some length to explain the result we reach.


A.A.M., the subject of these proceedings, was born on March 11, 1990. At the time of A.A.M.'s birth, her mother, P.L.M., was fifteen years old. P.L.M. lacked any adequate family structure, having come under the care and custody of DYFS herself in 1985

when she was nine years old and placed in foster care. P.L.M. has remained in the custody of DYFS since then.

P.L.M.'s contact with DYFS predated the 1985 placement, however, for her family had been under DYFS supervision since 1982. For most of P.L.M.'s life, her mother has been addicted to narcotics and her father, who does not live in New Jersey, has served time in prison, as has her oldest brother. She has six brothers and sisters; each of her siblings has a different father. In August of 1989, when P.L.M. was several months pregnant, DYFS arranged for a Child Study Evaluation to be performed. The social service evaluation noted that at that time P.L.M.'s mother was 36, several months pregnant herself and a grandmother.

P.L.M.'s first placement in a foster home lasted slightly more than a year and DYFS then placed her in a pre-adoptive home, where she remained for more than two years. She made an unsubstantiated allegation of sexual abuse against that family which resulted in the family's request that she be removed.

She next stayed briefly with her mother but was removed when she physically assaulted her six-month-old brother. This occurred in March of 1989, when P.L.M. was almost 14. Each of the various subsequent placements made by DYFS for P.L.M. has failed due to her aggressive, sometimes violent behavior and her inability to control her actions.

Following the assault on her infant brother, P.L.M. was placed in the Atlantic County Juveniles In Need of Supervision (JINS) Shelter. After only fifteen days, DYFS was asked to remove her from JINS due to her behavior. DYFS arranged an interim emergency placement for P.L.M. at Harborfield's Females In Transition (FIT) Program, but she was again asked to leave after five days because of her sexual and physical behavior problems. DYFS then secured a foster home for her from which she ran away. When P.L.M. was finally located, DYFS arranged for her to go to Beta House, a residential group home for girls in Camden County. Upon her arrival at Beta House in July 1989, it was

discovered that P.L.M. was pregnant and suffering from venereal disease and chlamydia. She stayed thirteen days at Beta House, which also asked that she be removed. The discharge assessment at Beta House noted that during her stay she was "erratic, dysfunctional, dissocial, and entirely uncontrollable, i.e. 1) disruptive to the therapeutic milieu, 2) hard to handle by staff, 3) uncooperative, 4) verbally and physically abusive toward staff and peers."

P.L.M. returned briefly to her mother, who was again unable to care for her. She was then reassigned temporarily to Harborfield while DYFS attempted to find a foster home for her. DYFS secured such a foster placement by August of 1989. While she was staying at this foster home, DYFS requested the Bancroft Evaluation and Treatment Center to perform a Child Study Team Evaluation upon P.L.M. She was found to have mild mental retardation and additionally, the psychiatric impression was that she suffered from Conduct Disorder. P.L.M. remained at this foster home for several months until her refusal to obey a curfew necessitated that she be placed in another foster home. She ran away from this second foster home, and was returned to the prior foster home in early January of 1990 to await the birth of A.A.M. During this time, DYFS arranged for her enrollment in Wee Care, a program designed to teach parenting skills to single, teen-age mothers. After the birth of A.A.M. in March of 1990, the foster home where she had been living would not accept P.L.M. back due to her poor behavior.

DYFS could not locate a foster home which would accept both P.L.M. and A.A.M., and thus placed them separately but in close geographic proximity. DYFS did, moreover, arrange for significant visitation between P.L.M. and A.A.M. while it was attempting to place them together. According to the DYFS records, the initial visitations went well. The records of DYFS note that on April 2, 1990, P.L.M. requested that the visit end early and that the worker was concerned that P.L.M. may be "growing tired of the baby." The description of a visit three days later notes that

P.L.M. had "a bit of an attitude" but did calm down during the visit. Other DYFS casenotes from this time period indicate that as early as March 22, P.L.M. was threatening to run away and was entertaining boys in her room.

DYFS casenotes document seven separate visits between P.L.M. and A.A.M. which occurred in the interim until DYFS was finally able to locate a foster home in which P.L.M. and A.A.M. could reside together. That placement only lasted fifteen days and P.L.M. was again asked to leave because of her uncontrollable behavior, her refusal to follow curfews and her practice of inviting boys back to her room. A.A.M. returned to her original foster home and DYFS arranged another temporary placement for P.L.M. at Harborfield, while efforts to secure a residential placement continued. P.L.M. was again asked to leave Harborfield because of her behavior, and she returned to Beta House in May of 1990. By the time of P.L.M.'s second placement at Beta House, A.A.M. was two months old.

Beta House, however, had only agreed to accept P.L.M. back if DYFS arranged for a one-on-one nurse to deal with her behavior. Even this proved unsuccessful and DYFS was again asked to remove P.L.M. from Beta House.

The second discharge summary from Beta House noted that she had been admitted with a one-on-one nurse:

due to extremely poor behavior in the past. P's behavior during her stay at Beta House was extremely negative and at times became violent. P's admission with a private one-on-one nurse was so that Beta's staff wouldn't have to deal with P's negative behaviors. Staff often became involved, thus the House became disrupted. The one-on-one nurse as well as staff made every effort to work with and counsel her, to no avail. P was discharged . . . on 6/27/90. Due to P's uncontrollable behavior, if another admission is requested, P will be denied.

By the time of P.L.M.'s second placement at Beta House, she had been arrested and charged with use of stolen credit cards. For this, she was placed on probation. P.L.M.'s probation officer arranged for her admission, following the Beta House expulsion, into Vision Quest, a self-described "high impact" program for troubled youngsters. DYFS arranged for three visits between

A.A.M. and P.L.M. during the time P.L.M. was enrolled in Vision Quest.

P.L.M. was unable to complete the Vision Quest program as well. Vision Quest notified DYFS of P.L.M.'s dismissal from the program and noted the following in a letter dated May 14, 1991:

P entered the Vision Quest program on June 27, 1990, and remained at the Wilderness Camp component for over seven months. While at the camp, P was involved in six altercations, and eight incidents requiring crisis intervention. On February 12, 1991, P transferred to the Wagon Train component. Though she remained on the Wagon Train for over two months, P was recently sent back for failure to adjust and being unmanageable in that setting. While at the wagon train component, P continued her need for crisis intervention on at least four occasions and her constant barrage of verbal abuse toward peers resulted in her involvement in two youth altercations.

On May 1, 1991, due to her failure to progress within the wagon train milieu, P was transferred to the Silver Valley Wilderness Camp in Franklin, Pennsylvania. Already, in her short time within this setting, P has been involved in several incidents, has continued her open defiance towards staff, remains verbally abusive toward her peers, utilizes sexual comments to gain the attention of her male peers and continually attempts to provoke her female peers into altercations."

By the summer of 1991, after P.L.M. was discharged from the Vision Quest program having failed to complete it, DYFS began to seek permanent placement for A.A.M. who had resided with the same foster mother throughout P.L.M.'s various episodes. During the summer of 1991, DYFS explored the possibility of placing A.A.M. with family members of P.L.M., but this proved impossible. By the end of August 1991, A.A.M.'s file had been reviewed and accepted for transfer to the Adoption Resource Center (ARC) for the commencement of termination proceedings.

Upon the dismissal of P.L.M. from Vision Quest, DYFS again placed her at Harborfield on a day-to-day basis while it sought a further residential placement for her. By September of 1991, Harborfield refused to keep P.L.M. any longer. DYFS then placed P.L.M. at the Vineland Children's Residential Center, again on a temporary basis while it sought a residential placement. Once at Vineland, P.L.M. was involved in repeated altercations with residents and staff. She twice tried to stab a staff member with a pen, she repeatedly went AWOL, and she spit upon staff

and tried to burn them with cigarettes. She was involved in fights with other residents, attacking one with a torn soda can; she set fires and set off false fire alarms; she threw food and plates in the dining room. Three incidents recorded in the records of the Vineland Children's Residential Treatment Center are sufficient for illustrative purposes. On November 22, 1991, while P.L.M. and another female resident were in the office P.L.M. began to physically attack the other girl while cursing her and threatening to pull out her hair. P.L.M. then asked for a five minute "time out" which was granted. She went outside and crawled back through the office window and again challenged ...

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