January 31, 2008
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF C.S., A MINOR.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Warren County, Docket No. FG-21-8-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 15, 2008
Before Judges Winkelstein and Yannotti.
Defendant R.R. appeals from an order entered on December 28, 2006, which terminated her parental rights to C.S. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
R.R. gave birth to C.S. on November 19, 2002. R.R. was twenty-five years old at the time. J.S. is the biological father of the child. Previously, R.R. had given birth to twin daughters, A.R. and B.R. L.R. is the father of the twins.
R.R. entered the hospital for psychiatric care on May 4, 2004. The Division effected an emergency removal of the three children. A.R. and B.R. were placed with their father, and C.S. was placed in foster care. On July 7, 2004, after R.R. had completed her psychiatric treatment, C.S. was returned to R.R.'s care. A.R. and B.R. remained with their father.
On August 27, 2004, R.R. consented to the placement of C.S. Thereafter, R.R. was hospitalized for psychiatric care. C.S. was again placed in foster care. On September 17, 2004, the Division filed a complaint seeking the care, custody, and supervision of C.S. On that date, the court entered an order placing C.S. in the Division's custody.
The judge conducted a fact-finding hearing on October 6, 2004 and found that R.R. had abused or neglected the child by failing to take prescribed medications, which made her incapable of caring for the child. C.S. was placed with her foster parents, where she has remained since. Following a permanency hearing on May 18, 2005, the judge accepted the Division's plan for the termination of R.R.'s parental rights and C.S.'s adoption by the foster parents.
The trial on the Division's guardianship complaint took place on March 22, 2006, April 24, 2006, and May 22, 2006.*fn1 The Division presented testimony from Stephanie Thomas (Ms. Thomas), a Division worker. Ms. Thomas testified that between 1999 and 2004, the Division received twenty reports concerning R.R. and the children. Ms. Thomas said that the Division provided R.R. with family preservation services in May 2002, January 2003, and August 2004. The Division also provided R.R. with domestic abuse counseling; a Family First program; the Contextual Family Service program; substance abuse evaluations; psychiatric evaluations; and visitation. In addition, the Division helped R.R. to obtain housing and financial assistance.
Ms. Thomas further testified that R.R. has a history of substance abuse. R.R. reported that she used many different substances, including marijuana, cocaine, and alcohol. R.R. tested positive for marijuana in January and November of 2005. In October 2005, R.R. was arrested for driving under the influence.
The Division referred R.R. to a substance abuse program, which provides therapy and ongoing treatment. Ms. Thomas said that R.R. also checked herself into a program called Teen Challenge, which is supposed to last from four to six months. According to Ms. Thomas, R.R. attended the program for "about two weeks, maybe less." R.R. stated that she left the program to appear in court but never returned to the program.
Ms. Thomas asserted that R.R. has a long history of mental illness. R.R. also has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. She has a history of paranoia and auditory hallucinations. Medication has been prescribed to address these conditions. However, R.R. has at times failed to take her prescribed medication. R.R. was admitted to a hospital for psychiatric treatment in 2001. In 2004, she was hospitalized and received electric shock therapy. Ms. Thomas also said that R.R. has had numerous jobs over short periods of time. She had been employed with a cleaning service but this job lasted less than a month. R.R. also was employed as a waitress for brief periods.
Dr. Peter DeNigris (Dr. DeNigris) testified that he performed a psychological evaluation of R.R. Dr. DeNigris noted that R.R. has a history of paranoia and auditory hallucinations, and she has been hospitalized for psychiatric treatment due to her non-compliance with medications. Dr. DeNigris also noted R.R.'s history of substance abuse.
The doctor performed certain psychological tests upon R.R. The results of those tests indicated that R.R. attempted to present herself in a very favorable manner and was reluctant to admit personal shortcomings. According to Dr. DeNigris, R.R. attempts to elicit approval from others and had a fear of being criticized. She endeavors to conform to the expectations of others and then resents those to whose expectations she conforms. In addition, the test results indicated that R.R. tends to deny or minimize her problems. The doctor stated that it is unlikely that R.R. would reach out to others for help on a consistent basis.
Dr. DeNigris asserted that R.R.'s failure to take prescribed psychotropic medications and the resulting hospital admissions for psychiatric care indicates that R.R. has a "very unstable mental status" that creates an unstable environment for a child. The doctor added that R.R. reported that she was participating in group therapy but he said that R.R. could only benefit from such treatment if she attended on a consistent basis.
Dr. DeNigris also noted that at the time of his evaluation, R.R. reported that she was working as a waitress. However, the doctor stated that the fact that R.R. was unemployed at the time of the trial was significant because it indicated that she might not be able to support herself and a child. Dr. DeNigris was concerned that the lack of resources could lead to homelessness.
Dr. DeNigris additionally addressed R.R.'s substance abuse history. R.R. told the doctor that she last used marijuana in February or March 2005, but admitted that she had been charged with driving under the influence in October 2005. R.R. reported that she was going for treatment but she did not believe that she had a substance abuse problem. The doctor said that if R.R. had not completed the program, there was a higher risk of relapse.
The doctor further testified that R.R.'s plan to care for C.S. was vague. R.R. said that if C.S. had any problems after removal from the foster home, she would seek therapy for the child and give her "a lot of special attention." However, R.R. did not specify who would provide the therapy. Dr. DeNigris added that he thought R.R. was minimizing the adjustment that C.S. would experience upon her removal from the foster home.
Dr. DeNigris opined that, based on her past history, he did not believe that R.R. would comply consistently with additional services to address her medication, mental stability, or substance abuse. The doctor's bonding evaluation revealed that C.S. did not have "any type of attachment" with R.R. The child displayed a secure attachment with her foster parents. She viewed them as her primary caretakers. Dr. DeNigris stated that, if C.S. were removed from her foster parents, it was likely that the child would suffer harm. The doctor stated that he did not believe that R.R. would be able to parent C.S. in the foreseeable future.
At the trial, the Division also presented a report dated April 4, 2006, from Dr. James Ferretti (Dr. Ferretti). In his report, the doctor opined that R.R. should not be awarded custody of C.S., nor should she be allowed unsupervised visitation. Dr. Ferretti stated that there was a likelihood that R.R.'s psychiatric disorders would recur, even though she may be asymptomatic for periods of time.
R.R. testified at trial. She denied that she is suffering from any severe psychiatric disorder. She said that she believed she is only suffering for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. She admitted that on April 11, 2006, during the guardianship trial, she was hospitalized due to her psychiatric condition. She said that her hospitalization resulted from flashbacks to homicidal and suicidal feelings that she experienced as a child, and from an ovarian cyst. R.R. asserted that her inability to care for C.S. was due to the over-prescribing of medication.
Judge Pfeiffer issued a written opinion dated December 28, 2006. He concluded that the Division had proven by clear and convincing evidence all of the four prongs of the "best interest" test under N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a for the termination of R.R.'s parental rights. The judge entered an order on December 28, 2006, memorializing his determination. This appeal followed.
The Public Defender raises the following arguments on R.R.'s behalf:
THERE WAS INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE TO PROVE BY CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE THE STATUTORY REQUIREMENTS OF N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15 AND 30:4C-15.1.
A. THERE WAS INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE TO PROVE BY CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE THAT C.S.'S SAFETY, HEALTH OR DEVELOPMENT HAS BEEN OR WILL CONTINUE TO BE ENDANGERED BY THE PARENTAL RELATIONSHIP UNDER FACTOR NUMBER 1.
B. THERE WAS INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE TO PROVE BY CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE THAT THE DEFENDANT WAS UNWILLING OR UNABLE TO ELIMINATE THE HARM FACING C.S., OR IS UNABLE OR UNWILLING TO PROVIDE A SAFE AND STABLE HOME FOR HER DAUGHTER, AND THE DELAY IN PERMANENT PLACEMENT WILL ADD TO THE HARM, UNDER FACTOR NUMBER 2.
C. [THE DIVISION] FAILED TO PROVE BY CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE THAT IT MADE REASONABLE EFFORTS TO HELP THE PARENT CORRECT THE CIRCUMSTANCES WHICH LED TO THE CHILD'S PLACMEMENT WITH THE FOSTER PARENT, AND THE COURT FAILED TO CONSIDER ALTERNATIVES TO TERMINATION OF [HER] PARENTAL RIGHTS.
D. THERE WAS INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE TO PROVE BY CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE THAT TERMINATION OF DEFENDANT'S PARENTAL RIGHTS WILL NOT DO MORE HARM THAN GOOD, UNDER FACTOR NUMBER 4.
In addition, R.R. has filed a pro se brief in which she argues that her parental rights to C.S. should not be terminated. She states that she is a single mother, who has been subjected to a "horrendous history of abuse." R.R. says that the Division has never proven that she is an unfit mother. She claims that she knew she needed help and did everything that the Division told her to do. R.R. asserts that she is well, and has "overcome so much" with "hard work."
The scope of our review of a trial court's factual findings is limited. Such findings "are binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence." Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998) (citing Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974)). The trial court's findings "'should not be disturbed unless they are so wholly unsupportable as to result in a denial of justice.'" In re Guardianship of J.N.H., 172 N.J. 440, 472 (2002) (quoting In re Guardianship of J.T., 269 N.J. Super. 172, 188 (App. Div. 1993)). Furthermore, because judges in the Family Part have special "expertise in family matters, appellate courts should accord deference to family court fact-finding." Cesare, supra, 154 N.J. at 413.
The Division is authorized to seek the termination of an individual's parental rights when such relief would be in the child's "best interests." N.J. Div. of Youth and Family Servs. v. P.P., 180 N.J. 494, 505-06 (2004). "The grounds for termination of parental rights are codified in subsections (1) through (4) of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a, and are designed to balance parental rights and the State's parens patriae responsibility to protect the welfare of children." Id. at 506 (citing In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 347 (1999)).
Accordingly, an individual's parental rights may be terminated when the Division establishes by clear and convincing evidence the following criteria:
(1) The child's safety, health or development has been or will continue to be endangered by the parental relationship;
(2) The parent is unwilling or unable to eliminate the harm facing the child or is unable or unwilling to provide a safe and stable home for the child and the delay of permanent placement will add to the harm. Such harm may include evidence that separating the child from his resource family parents would cause serious and enduring emotional or psychological harm to the child;
(3) The [D]ivision has made reasonable efforts to provide services to help the parent correct the circumstances which led to the child's placement outside the home and the court has considered alternatives to termination of parental rights; and
(4) Termination of parental rights will not do more harm than good. [N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a.]
The criteria "are not discrete and separate; they relate to and overlap with one another to provide a comprehensive standard that identifies a child's best interests." K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 348.
We have carefully reviewed the record in light of the arguments raised by R.R. and the applicable law. We are convinced that there is ample support for the judge's conclusion that C.S.'s "best interests" would be served by terminating R.R.'s parental rights and permitting C.S.'s adoption by her foster parents. Therefore, we affirm the order terminating R.R.'s parental rights to C.S. substantially for the reasons stated by Judge Pfeiffer in his thorough and comprehensive written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(A) and (E). We add the following comments.
Here, the judge found that the evidence established that C.S.'s "safety, health or development has been or will continue to be endangered" by her relationship with R.R. N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a(1). The judge noted that R.R. has not been able to care for C.S. or her other two children for an extended period of time and this caused "continuous upheaval" in the lives of the children. The judge observed that R.R. has consistently failed to: comply with psychiatric care; take prescribed medication, and abstain from substance abuse. Judge Pfeiffer found that:
[R.R.'s] inability to accept her psychiatric condition, her inability to avail herself to psychiatric services on a consistent basis, her lack of employment and her unstable behavior occurring during the [g]uardianship [t]rial as well as during visitation prove by clear and convincing evidence that her continued relationship with [C.S.] will endanger [the child's] health and development.
In our view, the evidence presented at trial provides clear and convincing support for the judge's findings.
The judge additionally determined that the evidence established that R.R. is "unwilling or unable to eliminate the harm facing the child." N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a(2). The judge found that R.R. had failed to remedy the harm that led to the child's removal from the home. The judge noted that C.S. had been with her foster parents since October 2004. The judge observed that R.R.'s long psychiatric history, her failure to maintain consistent psychiatric care, her failure to take prescribed medication, and her inappropriate behavior demonstrated parental unfitness and an inability to provide the child with the care and stability that she requires.
The judge noted that Dr. Ferretti had opined that, due to her multiple hospitalizations, history of substance abuse, and psychological disorders, R.R. was not capable of effectively caring for her children on a consistent basis. The judge also noted Dr. DeNigris' opinion that it was in C.S.'s best interest to terminate R.R.'s parental rights so that C.S. could achieve permanency with her foster parents. The judge concluded that, based on her past and present behavior, it is unlikely that R.R. would be an appropriate caregiver in the foreseeable future. We are convinced that the evidence provides clear and convincing support for these findings.
In addition, Judge Pfeiffer found that the Division had proven that it made reasonable efforts to address the circumstances that led to the child's placement outside of the home, and considered alternatives to termination of parental rights. N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a(3). Again, the record provides clear support for the judge's findings. In his written opinion, the judge noted that the Division had provided R.R. with an "exhaustive list of services in an attempt to rehabilitate her and reunite the family." Furthermore, the Division had considered whether there were alternatives to the termination of R.R.'s parental rights. The judge stated that the child's maternal grandmother was the only relative resource but she passed away in October 2004 and R.R. had not identified any other relative resources.
Moreover, the judge found that the Division had established that terminating R.R.'s parental rights to C.S. would not do more harm than good. N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a(4). The judge noted that Dr. DeNigris opined that C.S. had developed a relationship with her foster parents and would suffer psychological harm if removed from their care. The judge further noted that Dr. DeNigris stated that C.S. did not have a secure attachment with R.R. The judge found that removing C.S. from her foster parents would cause serious harm, "while no true harm will come from terminating the biological mother's [parental] rights." In our view, the record also provides clear and convincing support for these findings.