January 31, 2008
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF J.B.M., J.T.M. AND J.D.M., MINORS.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Monmouth County, FG-13-88-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 15, 2008
Before Judges Grall and Chambers.
A.L., the mother of J.B.M., J.T.M. and J.D.M., appeals from a judgment entered on February 23, 2007, terminating her parental rights to her sons. The oldest of these children will be six years of age in April 2008, and the youngest will be three years of age in March. The judgment also terminates the parental rights of J.M., who is the father of these children. He does not appeal. We affirm substantially for the reasons stated by Judge Guadagno in his thorough and well-reasoned memorandum of decision dated February 23, 2007.
J.B.M. and J.T.M., along with their older sisters,*fn1 were removed from the custody of their parents on February 17, 2005. J.D.M. was born one month later; he never lived with his parents.
The Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) provided service to A.L. and her family beginning in August 2004. At that time, A.L. agreed to a plan for DYFS to assist her in addressing her substance abuse and supervising and caring for her children. A.L. did not participate in the drug treatment program and cancelled doctors' appointments scheduled for one of the children, who had not been immunized as required. A nurse who visited the home at DYFS' request in December observed one of the children eating debris left on the floor, which A.L. made no effort to take from the child's mouth.
In January 2005, A.L. agreed to a second plan for her family. That plan included services for A.L.'s school-aged children, who had been found to need treatment for serious emotional and educational problems. Within two weeks of agreeing to that plan, A.L. tested positive for cocaine twice. She was referred to a new treatment program but did not attend the initial appointment, cancelled a second appointment and declined to speak to a counselor who traveled to her home.
On February 15, 2005, a caseworker reported that A.L. and her family were living in deplorable conditions. A.L. was pregnant but not receiving prenatal care. There were cigarette butts and dirty dishes with rotting food on the floor. When the caseworker returned after two days, there was no improvement in the sanitary conditions. At that point, DYFS obtained an order authorizing removal of the children.
A.L. and J.M. admitted using cocaine while caring for the children and also during two of A.L.'s pregnancies. A.L. admitted that despite the need to provide for five children, she and J.M. spent approximately seventy percent of their income on cocaine. There is no dispute that A.L. and J.M. lost a home for their family that was given to them by her parents because they did not keep up with the bills and mortgage payments.
After the children were removed from the custody of their parents, A.L. attended a twenty-eight day program for drug abuse but relapsed on discharge. DYFS referred her to a second program, one which would provide a residence for her and her children while she attended. She did not follow-up. She did not attend subsequent appointments for substance abuse treatment arranged through the County Board of Social Services. She refused to attend another long-term residential program recommended to her.
In April 2006, A.L. enrolled herself in a six-month program, which she attended for three months until she was discharged upon meeting her treatment goals. Her prognosis at the time of discharge was described as "fair," due to "stressors" associated with her efforts to regain custody of her children.
At the time of trial, A.L. was living with J.M.'s uncle and had secured part-time employment. She and J.M. had separated. A.L. claimed that she had plans to rent a home at the rate of $1450 per month, but she was earning less than $200 per week. None of the experts who evaluated A.L. concluded that she could handle the responsibility of caring for her children without supervision or assistance until she had maintained her sobriety for a year.
DYFS arranged visitation for the parents. Between removal and the time of trial, the frequency of that visitation varied with the circumstances, including A.L.'s availability and the location of their six children.
The evidence, including the expert opinions, indicates that A.L.'s children are doing well. J.D.M. resides with a maternal aunt and her husband, with whom he has lived since birth. He does not recognize either A.L. or J.M. as a parent. J.B.M. and J.T.M. lived with their maternal grandmother after they were removed from the custody of their parents. When they first arrived at the grandmother's, one of the boys had never been taken to a dentist. He required dental work to address cavities and an abscess. J.B.M. and J.T.M. lived with their grandmother until August 2006, when she was no longer able to care for them.
They have since lived in the home of a family that is interested in adoption.
On appeal, A.L. contends that DYFS failed to establish the grounds for termination of her parental rights in accordance with N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1. DYFS and the law guardian for the children argue that the evidence clearly and convincingly establishes that the termination of A.L.'s parental rights is in the best interest of the children, as defined by N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1.
"Appellate review of a trial court's decision to terminate parental rights is limited, and the trial court's factual 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)). The evidence in this case provides more than adequate support for Judge Guadagno's conclusion that termination of A.L.'s parental rights is in the best interest of these children. Their mother, despite prolonged and reasonable efforts by DYFS to assist A.L. in addressing her problems, has been and remains unable to provide these children with the care, stability and permanency that is now available to them if they are freed for adoption.