On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County, FG-15-11-00.
Before Judges Cuff, Wecker and Winkelstein.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Winkelstein, J.A.D.
As amended January 4, 2002.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued telephonically September 12, 2001
A.G. and R.L. have lengthy histories of mental illness which have prevented them from raising their son R.G.L. since his birth. A.G., the child's mother, appeals the December 7, 2000 order of the trial court terminating parental rights to her two-year, seven- months-old child. Following a three-day trial, the trial court concluded that A.G. was not capable of caring for R.G.L. The parental rights of the child's father, R.L., were also terminated, but R.L. has not appealed. The trial court also ordered the Division of Youth and Family Services (the Division) to proceed with the child's adoption by his foster parents, with whom he has lived since he was approximately four weeks old. The question in this case is whether her psychiatric disability renders A.G. incapable of caring for her child. We agree with the trial court that A.G. is not capable of caring for R.G.L. and affirm.
A.G. was first diagnosed with a mental illness in 1983, at age twenty-two, when she threatened to jump off a building. She was admitted to Elizabeth General Hospital's psychiatric unit, the first of four admissions in 1983-1984. In 1985, she spent a month at Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital. In 1986, her mental illness qualified her for disability benefits. Between 1987 and 1998, she received outpatient treatment and attended medication management groups on a regular basis. She was also admitted to a psychiatric facility for ten days in 1997. At the end of January 1998, prior to becoming pregnant with R.G.L., she was admitted to a psychiatric facility for suicidal ideations; she had threatened to cut her wrists. At the end of March 1998, she presented at the Carrier Clinic, where she was diagnosed with and treated for "schizophrenia, paranoid type." At that time she was seven weeks pregnant. Evaluation notes at Carrier disclose that earlier that month, she was "taken off" her medication because she was pregnant.
In late August and early September 1998, A.G. visited Kimball Medical Center for pre-natal care. After seven months without her medication, her physical and mental conditions were compromised. At an appointment on August 28, 1998, she complained that she needed a wheelchair because she was unable to do "anything now that [she was] pregnant," such as walking and cooking.
In September 1998, A.G. and R.L. were visited in their home by a social worker from Kimball Medical Center's Psychiatric Evaluation Screening Service who was accompanied by two police officers, to discuss giving up the baby when he was born. A.G. became upset with her visitors, was unable to verbally respond, and communicated only in writing. A.G.'s emotional state was so compromised at that time that she visited the emergency room of a local hospital each evening for the next five days. Subsequently, A.G. requested in-patient care at Shoreline Hospital, and was admitted some time in late September. On October 1, 1998 she was committed to Ancora Psychiatric Hospital, where she was remedicated and treated until October 24, 1998. During her stay at Ancora, she was briefly admitted to Kennedy Memorial Hospital for the birth of R.G.L. on October 14, 1998. At his birth, she requested a social worker's assistance to place him. Two Division workers told her one of her options was to voluntarily place the child in foster care for fifteen days. She and R.L. agreed. Several days later, she was discharged from Ancora on medication.
On October 28, 1998, A.G. and R.L. were asked by Division workers to agree to a six-month placement for the child. They declined. On the same day, the Division prepared an assessment which recommended that A.G. and R.L. have a one hour supervised visit with their son each week. On November 2, 1998 the Division filed a complaint seeking to retain custody of R.G.L. On November 17, 1998 R.G.L. was placed in the foster home of Mr. and Mrs. L., with whom he continues to reside.
The following day, A.G. returned to Ocean Mental Health Services for out-patient medication management. On November 19, 1998 she and R.L. presented to Division psychologist Dr. Richard Klein for mental health evaluations. Klein submitted his findings and conclusions in a report dated November 24, 1998. He described A.G. as cooperative and found her memory and sensory processes intact. He saw no evidence of hallucinations, delusions or looseness of association.
[A.G.] is an extremely emotionally labile personality. There are paranoid qualities. She is unable to organize and plan because she tends [sic] to become engrossed in detail and trivia while losing sight of the overall task at hand. There is significant emotional disturbance, possibly involving psychotic processes.
Klein's overall impression was that while A.G. was within the average to high average range in intelligence, she presented as significantly emotionally disturbed. In his opinion, she was unable to parent independently, but would be able to assist in parenting if supervised by a responsible adult. He recommended supervised visitation with R.G.L.
A.G. and R.L. continued to visit R.G.L. and attended parenting classes. On December 7, 1998 the Ocean County Review Board completed a "forty-five day review" of the voluntary placement and recommended continued placement outside the home. A.G. returned to Project Anchor on January 5, 1999 attending four days per week, with the focus of therapy on anger and stress management.
Around this time, the Division attempted to find a person of A.G. and R.L.'s choice to care for R.G.L. A.G. reported that a friend, Mrs. R., had expressed an interest in helping care for R.G.L. Mrs. R. is sixty-years old and raised two sons of her own. When contacted by the Division, she expressed concern about caring for R.G.L. on a long-term basis, based upon her belief that if she provided care for more than a year, she would become "too attached" to him. Mrs. R. did not make a decision at that time.
After the Division worker spoke with her, Mrs. R. allegedly spoke to A.G. The Division received a call from a worker at the Kimball Center, reporting that A.G. appeared very upset, claiming Mrs. R. told her the State would put R.G.L. up for adoption because he is white and the State will make a lot of money on the adoption. According to Center workers, A.G. reported that the conversation with Mrs. R. caused her to experience homicidal and suicidal thoughts. A.G. further stated she would find the foster home and "steal the baby back." A.G. was then hospitalized from January 15 through January 20, 1999.
On February 3, 1999 after A.G. was released from the hospital, the Division received a phone call from the parenting group at St. Francis Medical Center, who reported a plan to provide A.G. with both group and in-home counseling. This was relayed to A.G. on February 5, 1999. She stated, however, that she changed her mind and would go to Lakewood for parenting rather than attend the St. Francis counseling sessions. On February 17, 1999 St. Francis sent the Division a letter confirming that A.G. declined to have parenting classes in her home. A.G. later again changed her mind and attended parenting classes at St. Francis at least once per month through September 1999.
In March 1999 the Division contacted A.G. to determine whether Mrs. R. had reached a decision. A.G. stated that Mrs. R. was no longer interested. During that conversation, R.L. was asked if his brother could care for R.G.L. R.L. answered "no" because his brother and his wife both worked and were raising their own preteen children. The Division concluded its search for relatives and in a March 16, 1999 letter to A.G. and R.L., confirmed that neither Mrs. R., nor R.L.'s brother, were placement resources. On May 5, 1999 the Division advised A.G. and R.L. that they would need to be supervised at all times while with R.G.L. Thus, a live-in assistant would be required for R.G.L. to reside with them. They were informed that a transfer of R.G.L.'s case to the Adoption Resource Center was planned, but were given one more month to find a resource on their own.
The Division filed the complaint to terminate parental rights on July 27, 1999. Meanwhile visits between A.G., R.L. and R.G.L. continued. An August 4, 1999 order adjudicated R.G.L. "abused or neglected" as contemplated by N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21, and extended the child's temporary placement. It was further ordered that psychiatric and bonding evaluations of the parents be undertaken. On November 23, 1999, the Ocean County Review Board completed its "twelve-month review." The Board found that continued out-of-home placement was in the child's best interest and recommended that the long-term goal be the child's adoption by his foster parents.
On December 16, 1999 at the Division's request, psychiatrist Dr. John Liccardo prepared a psychiatric evaluation of both A.G. and R.L., and a bonding evaluation of A.G. and R.L. with R.G.L. In preparing his evaluation, Liccardo reviewed the Division's legal filings and assessments, Klein's November 1998 psychological evaluations, and the documents from Ancora Psychiatric Hospital regarding A.G.'s October 1998 admission. He also interviewed A.G. for approximately one hour.
Liccardo evaluated the extent of the bond between R.G.L. and his parents. He observed that A.G. actively tried to engage the child in play, but she selected activities which were too advanced for his age. At one point, while the child played with blocks, she encouraged him to identify numbers and colors, which was beyond the capacity of a child his age. A.G. was very affectionate with the child, and while he did not reciprocate, he allowed her to repeatedly hug and kiss him. Approximately twenty minutes after the evaluation started, A.G. left the room because she was too warm. While she was gone, the child was somewhat distressed, and R.L. "appeared to be at a loss as to what to do to comfort his son." A.G. rejoined them and started to ...