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New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services v. M.W.

August 10, 2007


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, FG-07-37-06.

Per curiam.



Argued April 25, 2007

Before Judges Collester, Sabatino and Lyons.

These are consolidated appeals from a judgment of guardianship entered on June 8, 2006 by Judge Glenn A. Grant of the Essex County Family Part, terminating the parental rights of defendant M.W. to her three sons, twins R.W. and F.W., born on June 13, 1995, and T.H., Jr., born August 28, 1998, and from the termination of parental rights of T.H., Sr., natural father of T.H., Jr. M.W. named defendant's M.J. and G.C. as possible biological fathers to R.W. and F.W., but their whereabouts are unknown. Following the State's proof of diligent inquiry to ascertain their location under R. 5:12-2(b), default was entered against these defendant's on January 19, 2006. Following a trial held on May 22, 23, and 24, 2006, and on June 8, 2006, Judge Grant terminated the parental rights of both M.W. and T.H. and on June 15, 2006, he issued a comprehensive eighty-two page written opinion setting forth in detail his findings of fact and conclusions of law.

The facts of this case would shock the cynical and wound the most hardened of hearts. It outraged the citizenry and shook the foundation of the State child support system resulting in an organizational restructuring of the Division of Youth and Family Services ("the Division").

On the morning of January 4, 2003, the Newark Police Department received a 9-1-1 call reporting that two beaten and starving children were found locked in the basement of an apartment building at 188 Parker Street. When police arrived, they met Shawn Slappy, who made the call. He identified himself as the boyfriend of Sherry Murphy who lived in the building.

Slappy said he moved in with Murphy about two weeks before and was unaware of the existence of the children until he entered the basement that morning to look for his boots. When he saw something moving, he investigated and was shocked to find two boys locked in a room with a bed but no sink or toilet. He brought the children upstairs and called 9-1-1. He told police that Sherry Murphy never told him about these boys. He said she left early that morning, and he had no idea when she would return. They were in deplorable condition. Their clothing was filthy with urine and feces. Their hair was matted. Each showed old and new bruises and burn marks indicating they were burned and abused.

The boys were taken by EMT to University Hospital for examination and treatment and the Division was notified. Sandra Osborne responded for the Division and arrived at the hospital at about 11:30 a.m. She was told the boys appeared to be three or four years old. Ms. Osborne's report then reads:

At this time, there was very little information about the boys. Both kids were in deplorable condition. Clothing was filthy and smelled of urine, hair matted, there were old and new bruises as well as burn marks on the children. [T.H., Jr.], age 4, appeared to be extremely weak and needed assistance standing. He was not able to verbalize at all. However he understands what is being said to him. [He] has multiple bruises over his entire body and appears to have been burned over the buttocks, arms, legs, face and stomach. He is very thin and frail for his age. [R.W.], age 7, was able to provide his name and also his brother's same. [R.W.] was also filthy with old burns and marks on back and neck.

His skin is dry and scaly, clothes were wet with the smell of urine. He was very weak and hungry. [R.W.] gave his age as 6 years old, but did not know his brother[']s age.

Both boys appear to be underdeveloped for [their] ages. It is not known how long the children were in the basement, however, it appears that they have been locked up for 3 to 4 weeks. [R.W.] was able to tell me that Sherry put him and his brother in the basement. He stated that she only fed them sometime[s] not all the time. I asked [R.W.] how did he get the bump on his eye. He stated "Sherry punched me in my face for peeing on the floor." He also said that she put [T.H., Jr.] in hot water because he "do do" on the floor. I then asked [R.W.] did he know where is mother was and he responded, "Yes."

I said where is she?" He responded, "She's locked up." I asked [R.W.] how long has he and his brother been in the basement? He responded, "A long time." . . . [R.W.] did not want to answer any more questions at that time because he wanted to eat.

A hospital registration clerk searched their computer for past admittances and found the name of M.W. as the mother of the children. There was also a contact number for the children's aunt, R.G., in the Bronx. Ms. Osborne called, and R.G. told her that she spoke with M.W. the night before and asked about the children. She said M.W. was "vague anytime the conversation would come up about the children" but said that "Sherry was taking care of them until she could find an apartment." R.G. said that the children had previously been living with Sherry Murphy from March 2001 to July 2001 while M.W. was in jail for driving while suspended and causing an accident. R.G. said that M.W. also moved in with Sherry Murphy after she was released, but M.W. was thrown out after an argument in August. R.G. said that another of M.W.'s sons, ten-year-old F.D.W., also left the Murphy home at that time and was now in the care of R.G.'s son in New York. The remaining boys were left with Sherry Murphy

During the conversation, R.G. mentioned another boy named F.W., R.W.'s twin, and wanted to know his whereabouts. Ms. Osborne said only two children were found in the home. R.G. insisted that all three were living with Sherry Murphy. She gave Ms. Osborne a phone number to call M.W.

Before making the call, Ms. Osborne received information from Division records which confirmed that there was another boy named F.W. who was a twin to R.W. Ms. Osborne then called the phone number given by R.G. and reached P.W., M.W.'s sister, who said that M.W. had been living with her in Newark since she left Sherry Murphy's house in the summer of 2001. M.W. told P.W. that her three youngest sons were living in Rocky Mount, North Carolina with a cousin. P.W. said she felt something was wrong, but she did not question her sister further. She said M.W. had left that morning to visit F.D.W. in New York.

P.W. came to the hospital emergency room to see the children and met with Ms. Osborne and a Newark police detective. She became upset when she was told that F.W. was not found with the others and said she had no idea where he might be. She added that Sherry Murphy had five of her own children living in her home and that she worked at night as a go-go dancer. Ms. Osborne then interviewed R.W. about his twin brother. He said that F.W. lived in the basement with the other two brothers and that the last time he saw him was when "Joe" came and got him because "Sherry put him in hot water and he was screaming." "Joe" was later identified as a prior boyfriend of Sherry Murphy. At 7 p.m. a missing persons bulletin for F.W. was sent out by the Newark Police Department. Later that evening it was reported that M.W. had been struck by a car in the Bronx and was taken to Lincoln Hospital. The day ended with no information on either Sherry Murphy or the missing F.W.

At about 3 p.m. the following afternoon, January 5, 2003, Newark police returned to the basement at 188 Parker Street and found what they feared most -- the decaying body of seven-year-old F.W. in a box about fifteen feet away from where his brothers had been found. The Essex County Medical Examiner reported that the body had been so badly decomposed that there were no facial features, no facial tissue, no eyes, no nose, and no lips. The only means of identification was through DNA.

F.W. was pronounced dead at 3:35 p.m. The medical examiner said that he actually had been dead for at least a few weeks.

The gruesome discoveries of R.W. and T.H., Jr. in the basement and the dead body of F.W. spurred extensive coverage in newspapers and media outlets throughout New Jersey and the metropolitan area on the police hunt for Sherry Murphy. After the police received information on her location, Murphy was arrested and remanded to jail. On November 7, 2003, she was indicted for attempted murder, kidnapping of R.W. and T.H., Jr., and child endangerment of all three children. Her son, W.M., was charged with aggravated manslaughter of F.W., aggravated assault of F.W. and endangering the welfare of a child.

W.M. entered into a plea agreement and pled guilty to one count of reckless manslaughter on September 2, 2005. He was paroled on December 29, 2005. Sherry Murphy entered into a plea agreement to two counts of aggravated assault, two counts of criminal restraint, and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child. She admitted at her plea hearing that she put the dead body of F.W. in a hamper in her bedroom and, after three days, moved it into the basement. She also admitted confining R.W. and T.H., Jr. to an area in the basement without a toilet or other bathroom facilities, causing their severe malnutrition, causing a serious burn on the buttocks of four-year-old T.H., Jr., and not seeking medical treatment for him. Sherry Murphy was sentenced on November 2, 2005, to an aggregate term of twenty-five years, with sixteen years of parole ineligibility under the No Early Release Act. Her sentence was affirmed on appeal. Her projected eligibility date is August 13, 2016.

The physical and psychological damage to R.W. and T.H., Jr. was apparent when they were taken to University Hospital on the morning of January 4, 2003. The condition of both boys can only be described as pitiful. Four-year-old T.H., Jr. presented with hypopigmented patches on his skin resembling burns, scaling skin, osteopenia (generalized reduction of bone mass), significant dental decay, and a distended abdomen. Evidence of old burns on his feet and buttocks were consistent with second degree burns. Circumferential scarring around the ankles, wrists, and neck were consistent with his being bound with some type of restraints. He weighed approximately twenty-nine pounds and measured approximately three feet tall, both under the third percentile for a four-year-old. Burn scars were also ...

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