On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Hudson County, FG-09-113-02.
Before Judges Wefing, Wecker and Fuentes.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wecker, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Defendant, S.V., appeals an order terminating her parental rights to her five biological children. S.V. was born September 10, 1975 and married at age fifteen. She had four daughters: S.I.V., born July 18, 1991; V.E.V., born December 6, 1993; E.M.V., born April 20, 1995; and M.M.V., born December 11, 1997. Defendant's youngest child, a son, D.J.V., was born May 25, 1999. S.V.'s husband, defendant B.V., is the biological father of defendant's four daughters. He voluntarily surrendered his parental rights before the trial judge. The father of the youngest child, R.L., failed to appear at the trial. His parental rights were terminated as well.*fn1
The New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) initiated this matter by Order to Show Cause and Verified Complaint filed on August 7, 2001. A trial was held before Judge Salvatore Bovino on October 7, 8, and 11, 2002. All three defendants were represented by counsel, and the children were represented by a law guardian. The judge heard the testimony of Valerie Smith and Inez Perez, both DYFS caseworkers assigned to S.V., Deborah Pruse, who was employed by DYFS in its northern region Adoption Resource Center, and Dr. Richard S. Klein, a psychologist called by S.V. The judge also admitted into evidence psychological evaluations of S.V. prepared by several psychologists and bonding evaluations prepared by a psychologist, Dr. Robert Raymond. Several written psychological evaluations of S.V. were also in evidence. S.V. did not testify. At the conclusion of the trial, Judge Bovino rendered a detailed oral opinion, setting forth findings of fact and conclusions of law in support of his decision terminating the parental rights of S.V., as well as B.V. and R.L.
The family first came to the attention of DYFS in 1999, as a result of allegations of inadequate housing and domestic violence. Investigation revealed roach-infested quarters with no utility service. Over the next several years, DYFS attempted to assist S.V. in obtaining Section 8 housing, but she repeatedly failed to follow up on that assistance and allowed her vouchers to expire. DYFS assisted her in applying for welfare and housing assistance, to little avail. S.V. passed the children around to various relatives during several periods when she was homeless. The children variously reported incidents of domestic violence between S.V. and B.V., and the oldest three subsequently reported sexually inappropriate behavior toward them by S.V.'s boyfriend. Evidence also revealed that the older children had not been attending school.
In or about September 2000, DYFS removed the children from their temporary foster care placements and placed them with their current caregivers. There is evidence that S.V. attended some parenting skills classes to which she was referred by DYFS, and that she underwent some psychiatric counseling. However, the judge noted the absence of evidence"that she was successfully discharged... [or] that her being taken off the medication was authorized by her doctor." In early 2002, S.V. reported that she was going to school and then that she had found employment. However, she did not cooperate with attempts to confirm her schedule in order to accommodate a visitation schedule to her needs. Neither has DYFS been able to confirm S.V.'s numerous claims over the years that she had found employment or was about to obtain a residence. The judge found, based on substantial credible evidence, that S.V."has had no stable housing since this case began back in May of 1999." He noted that she"did not always appear in court as required and that she had missed [several] court dates...."
Dr. Elias Fernandez was retained by DYFS to provide an evaluation of S.V., who was twenty-five at the time of Dr. Fernandez's assessment in November 2000. His report included S.V.'s admission that the children had witnessed domestic violence. He was unable to obtain valid results of two psychological tests he attempted. He diagnosed an adjustment disorder with depressive features and features of a dependent personality. In his opinion, S.V.'s prognosis would be"fair" if she stabilized herself and had a home for the children.
DYFS also submitted a psychiatric evaluation report prepared by Dr. Devendra Kurani in February 2001. Dr. Kurani found no evidence of psychiatric illness or substance abuse that would prevent her from caring for her children, but that her behavior indicated poor judgment and failure to understand the parental role.
A psychiatric evaluation by Dr. Alavaro Gutierrez dated September 2001 included S.V.'s acknowledgments that she was unable to care for the children, that they had been physically abused by her boyfriend, although she denied being aware that there had been sexual abuse, that she had been essentially homeless since 1999, and that the children had witnessed acts of domestic violence against her both by her husband and her boyfriend. Dr. Gutierrez found that S.V. minimized and denied responsibility for neglect and abuse of her children.
Another psychological evaluation of S.V. was completed by Dr. Robert Raymond and reported in January 2002. His report was consistent with the others obtained. However, he also reported that S.V. told him that up until three months before her visit with him, she had been feeling suicidal, but no longer had those feelings. She claimed to have experienced a religious conversion and to have come to terms with feelings of inadequacy with respect to her mother and sister.
Dr. Raymond also prepared bonding evaluations of the children, both with S.V. and with their caregivers. Like Dr. Klein, he found some attachment between S.V. and the children, and with the exception of the oldest child, appropriate interaction between them. Bonding evaluations of the children with their respective caregivers evidenced strong attachments and significant improvement and stabilization of previously observed behavior problems.
The children's Law Guardian reported that each of the four girls expressed the wish to be adopted by her present caregiver, and that the youngest, who had been with his caregiver for the last two of his three years, was not old enough to express his wishes. The guardian strongly urged the court to find it in each child's best interests for S.V.'s parental rights to be terminated, freeing the children for adoption.
S.V. presented the expert testimony of Dr. Klein, who concluded that the children had a bond with S.V., and that she had the potential for establishing future stable housing and employment and therefore for reunification with the children. The judge concluded that Dr. Klein failed to take into consideration defendant's unstable history in predicting her future and failed to consider the children's bonds with their present caregivers when he concluded that termination would do more harm than good. We agree that there is virtually no substantiating evidence for Dr. Klein's optimistic predictions about S.V.'s future ability to parent these children. The judge found that the ...