February 1, 2008
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
C.C., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT, IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF O.R. AND J.R., MINORS.
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
A.R., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT, IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF O.R. AND J.R., MINORS.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Union County, FG-20-106-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 7, 2008
Before Judges Stern, Collester and C.L. Miniman.
These are consolidated appeals by defendants C.C. (Camille)*fn1 and A.R. (Alfred) from the termination of their parental rights to O.R. (Olivia), born September 5, 1991, and J.R. (Jeffrey), born January 23, 1996. Camille and Alfred are the natural parents of eleven children ranging in ages from twenty-three to six at the time the complaint for guardianship was filed by the Division of Youth and Family Services (the Division or DYFS). The four children over the age of eighteen are not parties to the litigation. Two minor children reside with their paternal grandmother after Camille and Alfred voluntarily surrendered their parental rights. The five remaining children named in the Division's complaint are as follows: Olivia; Jeffrey; C.R., a daughter born July 30, 1993; H.R., a daughter born August 17, 1994; and N.R., a daughter born April 1, 2001. During the course of the trial the defendants executed voluntary surrenders of their parental rights to all children except Olivia and Jeffrey, who are the only subjects of this appeal.
From 1990 to 1991 the family was living in New York and involved with New York's children's services agency. Four children were removed from parental care by the State of New York for reasons of neglect. Camille and Alfred moved with their remaining children to New Jersey in October 1996. That same month the Division received a referral from Catholic Charities, which was providing emergency shelter for the family after they had been evicted. Olivia and one of her sisters were placed with their maternal grandmother in a motor lodge in Edison, and the others were with their paternal grandmother in Perth Amboy. The Division learned the family's history of homelessness in New York as well as neglect in the home and truancy.
From the time of the first referral to the date of the filing of the complaint for protective services in 2001, the Division responded to twenty-four referrals for this family from persons reporting lack of housing, filthy living conditions, dirty clothing and other instances of neglect. Another constant problem was that Camille and Alfred were either unwilling or unable to have their children attend school, and, on some occasions when they went to school, the children appeared unwashed, wearing dirty clothing and no underwear. Other referrals received indicated the children were always home, appeared dirty and were begging for food or money. After a police officer entered the home, citations were issued for housing code violations because of garbage strewn about the home, an "extremely foul stench" within the house, unrepaired fire damage, missing windows, and holes in the floor. Although the Division worked extensively with the family toward the goal of family stabilization, little progress was made in keeping the home clean and safe and insuring that the children attended school. The home remained disorganized and dirty, strewn with garbage, infested with roaches and animal feces, and dirty clothes on the children.
On August 28, 2001, the Division filed an order to show cause and verified complaint for protective services with respect to eight of the children including Olivia and Jeffrey to remove them from the parental home based on allegations of neglect. In April 2002, five children, including Olivia and Jeffrey, were placed with extended family members or foster families with the goal of reunifying them with their parents. However, over the course of four years during which the parents and children were monitored, the Division's goal was re-focused to seek permanent adoption homes for the children. Subsequently, this guardianship complaint was filed, which was amended to apply only to Olivia and Jeffrey.
Among efforts by the Division to effect reunification were parenting classes, but Camille did not attend most sessions. Visiting nurses and health services aides found little or no progress. At one point Camille was unwilling to accept the services of a teaching homemaker to help improve the quality of life for herself and her children. Then in April 2001, it was discovered that fifteen-year-old C.R. was pregnant. She gave birth to one child in 2001, and a second a year later. She became the subject of her own DYFS case.
After the protective services order and the removal of the children from their home, Camille and Alfred continued their unstable life pattern. Their water was turned off for non-payment, and they were evicted from their home. Alfred assaulted Camille on one occasion and admitted to alcohol abuse, contrary to what he told the examining psychologists. When their eldest daughter gave birth, mother and her child were placed outside Camille and Alfred's home because of unsanitary living conditions. When Camille gave birth to her eleventh child in August 2002, the Division placed the baby outside the home.
To their credit, both Camille and Alfred attended some parenting classes and enjoyed supervised visitation with all the children removed from their custody. The Division reported that these services achieved a certain degree of success in educating the parents and improving their skills, but they were unable to apply their training on a consistent basis. In a May 5, 2000 report the Division emphasized the need for a permanent plan for Olivia and Jeffrey which stated in part that
[Camille and Alfred] love their children and . . . their children have a strong attachment to their parents. However, the children need permanency. If unification with the parents is not the permanency plan it can be assessed that other children, particularly [Jeffrey and Olivia], would be devastated by this loss and separation. Yet the importance for them to have a permanent plan and stable environment is crucial. In providing permanency there would be an opportunity to decrease the children's sense of ambivalence and anxiety related to the ongoing indecision of reunification.
At trial psychological evaluations of Camille and Alfred were admitted to determine their parental fitness. Dr. Ernesto Perdomo's psychological evaluation of Camille was that she was immature, egocentric, and narcisstic with schizoid and obsessive-compulsive personality features. Her intellectual functioning was borderline. He opined that she would be unable to ascertain her children's needs or appropriately care for them so that they would always be at risk for parental neglect. Dr. Perdomo reached a similar conclusion as to Alfred. He said that Alfred lacked the maturity to raise children and could easily become frustrated and lose control with them. Dr. Perdomo's opinion was that, like Camille, Alfred also would constantly expose the children to neglect.
Dr. Alexander Iofin also evaluated both Camille and Alfred and testified at trial. He noted that Camille had a dysfunctional upbringing, a transient lifestyle, a lack of family structure, a lack of education, all of which enhanced the risk of her neglecting the children because she lacked basic skills to care for them. He said while she may have tried to comply with services provided by DYFS, she lacked the ability to follow through with what was required. He agreed with Dr. Perdomo's opinion that if the children were placed in Camille's care, they would always be at risk of neglect and that in his opinion there was no therapy or medication that could help her due to her cognitive limitations. Dr. Iofin also noted that Olivia and Jeffrey had needs which contributed to the stress in Camille's life, resulting in issues of impulse control. She was unable to provide the necessary boundaries, structures, and limitations for them because of her own inability to cope with stress. With regard to Alfred, Dr. Iofin noted he had a great amount of denial. He did not understand that the reason for the removal of his children was not financial difficulties or lack of space, but rather the deplorable conditions of his home and the children as well as the failure of the children to go to school. Dr. Iofin found Alfred to be cognitively impaired and unable to function as a proper parent. Dr. Iofin opined that if any one child were returned to the parents, that child would be neglected in a short period of time even with services provided by the Division, necessitating removal once again and great detriment to the children.
Neither Camille nor Alfred testified at the trial. Testifying on their behalf, Dr. Susan Skolnick stated she performed a psychological evaluation of Camille as well as a bonding evaluation with several of her children including Olivia and Jeffrey. She stated in the four years that the children had been removed from the familial home, the Division had not achieved permanency with respect to the children. She claimed Camille had grown emotionally over the years and benefited from the services provided by the Division so that she was in a better position to parent Jeffrey and Olivia. She recommended reunification with Camille one child at a time. She suggested Jeffrey be reunited with his mother first and that visits continue with Olivia in expectation that she also be reunited with her parents once Camille demonstrated success in parenting Jeffrey. Dr. Skolnick acknowledged that the parents would require continued assistance over a considerable period to properly care for Olivia and Jeffrey, and she agreed it would be devastating to them if they were returned to their parents and later removed again.
Judge Douglas M. Fasciale considered the testimony and other evidence in light of the four-pronged test adopted by our Supreme Court in New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Servs. v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591, 604-10 (1986) as codified in N.J.S.A. 34:4C-15.1(a). He found that the Division demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence that the health and development of Olivia and Jeffrey had been harmed by the parental relationship because they did not have a stable environment when living with their biological parents and were forced to live in a filthy home without adequate medical care and sufficient attention. He therefore found that the Division had proved demonstrable harm to the children in satisfaction of the first prong. See In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 348 (1999). Moreover, based largely on the testimony of Dr. Iofin and Dr. Perdomo, Judge Fasciale found by clear and convincing evidence that Camille and Alfred were unable or unwilling to eliminate the harm they had done as well as unwilling to provide a safe and stable home for needed structure and permanency and that, in light of the special needs of Olivia and Jeffrey, structure and boundaries were critical. The judge rejected the suggestion of Dr. Skolnick for reunification with the parents, with Jeffrey first and then with Olivia. He stated
[Dr. Skolnick]'s hesitation at reunifying both immediately, especially after years of services that were provided to the family, is quite telling. These two children, [Olivia and Jeffrey], need permanency now.
Any further delay in securing permanency would continue to add to harm [Olivia and Jeffrey].
Judge Fasciale found that the Division had made many reasonable attempts to provide services to correct the circumstances leading to placement outside the home and that consideration had been given to alternatives to the termination of parental rights. In this connection he stated that kinship legal guardianship was inappropriate since adoption of the two children was both feasible and likely. DYFS v. P.P., 180 N.J. 494, 512-13 (2004).
Finally, Judge Fasciale relied upon the testimony of the State experts in evaluating whether the termination of parental rights would do more harm than good. He noted that Olivia's educational performance was lacking and needs assistance that can be given by her foster mother but not by her mother. He noted that Olivia's foster mother is a family friend to whom Olivia is very attached as her psychological parent, and she looks not to her biological parents for stability or security but to her foster mother. The judge further found that the foster mother was providing excellent care so that Olivia was thriving in a safe and secure placement and that the foster mother is willing to adopt and continue facilitating visits with Olivia's parents and siblings. As to Jeffrey, the judge noted his special needs for educational help and ongoing medical treatment for his asthma. Jeffrey indicated he wanted to remain living with his paternal grandparents with his sisters and did not want to live with his parents. Jeffrey's paternal grandfather is also willing to adopt him. In light of these factors and the opinion of Dr. Perdomo, the judge found that terminating the parental rights of Camille and Alfred to Jeffrey and Olivia would not do any more harm than good.
Our review of a trial court's decision to terminate parental rights is limited. New Jersey Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. M.M., 189 N.J. 261, 278 (2007). The trial judge has a better perspective to evaluate the veracity of witnesses than the reviewing court can enjoy. Twp. of West Windsor v. Nierenberg, 150 N.J. 111, 132 (1997). In this instance, our review convinces us that the factual findings and legal conclusions of Judge Fasciale were supported by the record, and we affirm substantially for the reasons set forth in his opinion.