On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division-Family Part, Somerset County, FN-18-110-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 26, 2007
Before Judges Payne and Sapp-Peterson.
Defendant, N.L.V. (fictitiously, Nina), appeals from an order of March 20, 2007, following a fact-finding hearing, determining by a preponderance of the evidence that she abused or neglected her children, J.V., a daughter born on October 18, 1999 and R.V. Jr., a son born on May 15, 2002.*fn1 See N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21c(4)(b) (defining abused or neglected child); N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.46b (establishing quantum of proof); N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.50 (authorizing entry of order following fact-finding hearing). As a result of our review of the record in light of the arguments of the parties and applicable precedent, we reverse the order of the trial court and additionally require that Nina's name be removed from the State's Central Registry of substantiated child abusers, operated by the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS). See N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.11.
The hearing process in this matter consisted of a reading into the record of stipulated facts, supported by documentary evidence that was introduced by the parties as exhibits, followed by closing arguments and the submission of post-hearing briefs addressing the issues of (1) the date of focus for a judicial finding of abuse or neglect and (2) whether a psychiatric hospitalization, alone, is sufficient to require a finding of abuse or neglect. A written opinion followed. On appeal, none of the parties objects to the procedures utilized by the Family Part judge in this matter, which conformed to the standards that we articulated in New Jersey Div. of Youth & Family Servs v. J.Y., 352 N.J. Super. 245, 265 (App. Div. 2002).
The record establishes that Nina is a twenty-six-year-old Mexican native who married her husband, R.V. (fictitiously, Ramon), in 1999 and came to this country on a visa. Nina speaks little or no English. Ramon, an assistant maintenance worker at the apartment complex where the family resided, is an alcoholic who frequently subjected Nina to verbal and emotional abuse. On May 4, 2006, as Nina prepared her daughter for school, Ramon arrived home, and the couple commenced arguing about Ramon's drinking. Nina then walked the daughter to the bus stop and, on her return, told Ramon to leave the home. Ramon, in turn, told Nina that if he left, he would cancel the apartment lease, take all of his belongings, and leave her and the children with nothing. He then asked Nina what she would do with the kids and nowhere to go. Nina responded that she would take herself and the children to the train tracks and let a train run them over. The couple's young son was not in the room when the statement was made.
Upon hearing Nina's statement, Ramon called the local police, claiming that his wife wanted to kill herself and their children. Because none of the responding police officers spoke Spanish, upon their arrival at the home, the police interviewed only Ramon, who repeated his wife's alleged threats and stated that she had been extremely upset for a couple of days for unknown reasons. Ramon also accused Nina of drinking that day. However, a subsequent blood alcohol test did not confirm that statement, and there is no evidence in the record that would suggest that Nina abused alcohol or any other substance. The police report disclosed that the residence appeared well kept and that the son appeared well cared for and did not have any visible injuries. The police report was faxed to DYFS.
After obtaining Nina's consent, the police transported her to the Somerset Medical Center, where she was voluntarily admitted to its psychiatric unit for observation, remaining there for eight days. Nina arranged for the children to be placed with relatives during her hospitalization. In the course of Nina's initial screening at the hospital, she admitted making the statement that Ramon attributed to her, stated that Ramon was emotionally and verbally abusive, and that she had ceased her employment because she did not want to leave the children at home with her husband. While hospitalized, Nina exhibited signs of depression and expressed feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. However, it is difficult to tell from the hospital record what statements thereafter were actually made by Nina, who experienced difficulties in communicating with English-speaking staff and physicians, and what was assumed as the result of Nina's confirmation that she had uttered the words reported by her husband. Nonetheless, the nursing notes, in particular, contain frequent references to Nina's denial that she ever harbored suicidal or homicidal thoughts or impulses.
Nina was discharged from the hospital on May 12, 2006. The discharge summary indicated as follows:
AXIS I*fn2 Major depressive disorder, single episode, severe.