October 15, 2007
DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
M.L.C. AND R.G.D., DEFENDANT-APPELLANTS,
IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF A.G.D., M.M.D. AND N.D.D., MINORS.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County, Docket No. FG-15-24-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 24, 3007
Before Judges Parrillo and Alvarez.
In these consolidated matters, M.L.C. and R.G.D., the birth parents of A.G.D., M.M.D. and N.D.D., appeal from a judgment entered in the trial court terminating their parental rights and granting guardianship of the minor children to the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS).*fn1 Because the trial court's findings are supported by clear and convincing evidence, we affirm.
The relevant facts are as follows. When DYFS once again became involved with this family on December 10, 2004, after an earlier confirmed incident of neglect in February 2001, all three minor children, who were developmentally disabled, were living in squalid conditions in a broken glass-strewn trailer, barely clothed, without immunizations, and suffering from multiple dental and health problems. Medical examinations in March and May 2005 confirmed "medical neglect." The oldest child, A.G.D., born January 13, 1997, had rampant dental decay and was diagnosed with depression and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). His brother, M.M.D., born May 16, 2000, was also diagnosed with ADD, had numerous cavities, and had never been to a dentist. Their sister, N.D.D., the youngest child, born December 31, 2001, had rotted teeth, was non-verbal, not toilet-trained, and significantly developmentally delayed.
Upon removal from the home with the parents' consent for a six-month period, the children's condition improved considerably. Both N.D.D. and M.M.D. have had dental surgery, and all three were up-to-date on their immunizations shots.
N.D.D. is in a handicap pre-school and has been placed with foster parents who are committed to providing for her special needs and who wish to adopt her, and with whom she feels comfortable and attached. M.M.D. is receiving occupational therapy and although originally placed in the same foster home as his brother, A.G.D., has since been placed in another.
Because neither foster family has expressed an interest in adopting either boy, DYFS recommended placement of the boys with their maternal aunt and uncle in North Carolina, pending further investigation.
Unfortunately, the progress enjoyed by the children has not been matched by either their mother, M.L.C., or father, R.G.D.
M.L.C. herself is developmentally disabled, bordering on mental retardation. She has a depressive and impulse control disorder, presents with maladaptive personality traits, and demonstrates poor personal insight and awareness of her children's needs.
Over one year after the children's removal, and following psychological and bonding evaluations, DYFS' expert, Dr. Alan Lee, reported "notable and grave concerns" regarding M.L.C.'s overall parenting and caretaking capacity, and did not support M.L.C. being an independent caregiver to a minor child, much less one with special needs. Dr. Lee also found no evidence of a secure attachment between M.L.C. and A.G.D. and was equivocal as to whether one existed between M.L.C. and her other two children. Dr. William Coffey, who reported on behalf of the Law Guardian, was more definitive, finding that removal of N.D.D. from her foster parents "would likely create such psychological harm in the future that [N.D.D.] would not be able to make lasting attachments to a maternal figure and ultimately suffer irreparable psychological damage."
R.G.D. was also diagnosed with mental and cognitive limitations. According to Dr. Lee, R.G.D. presented with "maladaptive personality traits, including a rather characteristically detached, simplistic, impulsive, and reactive style . . .," which "contributed negatively to parenting and caretaking of [minor children]." Dr. Lee found no "evidence of bonding to a level where if the relationship [between the father and children] were terminated that it would result in severe, enduring, or irreparable harm to the minor children . . . ."
On February 6, 2006, DYFS filed a guardianship complaint against M.L.C. and R.G.D. as to the three children. Trial commenced on November 1, 2006 and concluded the next day without any testimony presented by either parent. On November 9, 2006, the trial judge rendered an oral opinion terminating the parental rights of M.L.C. and R.G.D. to all three children, reasoning in pertinent part:
In this case, I find by clear and convincing evidence that the first prong has been satisfied. The Division has been involved with this family since February of 2001, for basically the same conditions. The parents have been unable to provide a safe and clean sanitary home for the children. They have not provided for the children's medical and dental needs.
The parents, nobody finds them to be malicious, willful in their conduct. Due to their deficits, as discussed by the examining psychologist, they are just, unfortunately, not capable of providing that safe, nurturing environment for these three children.
And if the children were returned at the present time to the biological parents, it is my finding that their safety, health, and development would be very much endangered by the parental relationship. The children have made great strides. I don't have any problem concluding that they would regress significantly if returned to their parents.
In this particular case, I don't think that the parents are unwilling to provide a safe and stable home, or to eliminate the harm. I just say, sadly, that they are just not unable (sic) to do it. The psychological evaluations indicate that they tend to minimize; they don't appreciate the situations that are existing in the home; the threats to the children's safety as a result of those situations existing in the home. They don't seem to appreciate, or they minimize the need for the medical care, the dental care, and that sort of thing for the children, and that the children's safety really has been severely neglected by the parents.
In this case, the Division provided assistance, prior to December of '04 when this particular referral was received, when they investigated the three previous referrals. With regard to this referral, they also provided parenting classes on two occasions . . . .
The Division offered family support counseling through Preferred psychological evaluations, bonding evaluations, a significant amount of medical care, and testing, and treatment for the children. Homemaking services were provided. Individual counseling was provided.
I'm satisfied that the Division has met, by clear and convincing evidence, its obligation under Prong 3 of the statute. Alternatives to termination of parental rights have been considered, I guess, initially, in that the Division worked vigorously with the biological parents to provide the services to prepare them for reunification.
The indications are that the relatives in North Carolina and the foster parents for [N.D.D.] in New Jersey are not interested in anything other than adoption. Other relatives were evaluated and were deemed to be inappropriate.
The fourth prong is termination of parental rights will not do more harm than good. In this case, the children all had special needs upon their removal.
All of the children's dental and medical needs are being met at the present time. All of the children have improved greatly since their removal from their parents.
It is my finding by clear and convincing evidence that the termination of parental rights will do nothing but good for the three children. They will presumably continue to receive the necessary care --[N.D.D.], at least, in New Jersey, if adopted by the current foster parent --[M.M.D. and A.G.D.] presumably, through North Carolina Children Services, would continue to receive the care that they would need. A return to the parents would cause the children to regress rather than to progress.
So I'm satisfied that the Division has met Prong 4 by clear and convincing evidence.
Contrary to M.L.C.'s and R.G.D.'s contentions on appeal, we defer to Judge Ronald Hoffman's findings because they are well supported by substantial credible evidence in the record. See In re Guardianship of D.M.H., 161 N.J. 365, 382 (1999); Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 413 (1998); Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co., 65 N.J. 474, 483-84 (1974); In re Guardianship of J.T., 269 N.J. Super. 172, 188 (App. Div. 1993). In light of those findings, and substantially for the reasons stated in Judge Hoffman's thorough oral opinion of November 9, 2006, we agree that the best interests of A.G.D., M.M.D. and N.D.D. support a termination of appellants' parental rights. N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a).
Accordingly, the judgment appealed from is affirmed.