February 14, 2008
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
A.J.S., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT. IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF J.B. AND A.S., MINORS.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Monmouth County, Docket No. FG-13-77-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 23, 2008
Before Judges Winkelstein and Yannotti.
A.J.S. appeals from an order entered on October 24, 2006, which terminated her parental rights to minors J.B. and A.S., and granted guardianship to the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (Division) for purposes of adoption. We affirm.
A.J.S. is the biological mother of J.B. and A.S. D.W. is the biological father of J.B., and K.R. is the biological father of A.S.*fn1 On March 2, 2004, the Division was informed that nine days before, A.J.S. had given birth to J.B. and she was living with the child in a motel and using marijuana. The Division investigated the report. A.J.S. denied using marijuana.
However, the Division learned that after his birth, J.B. was kept an additional week in the hospital because he was suffering from acid reflux, and medication had been prescribed for that condition. The Division also learned that J.B required an apnea monitor for his breathing. When the caseworker returned to the motel in April 2004, she found that the child was not using the monitor or taking the prescribed medication. The caseworker returned for follow-up visits but was unable to locate A.J.S and the child. In October 2004, the Division closed its file.
In February 18, 2005, the Division was informed that A.J.S. gave birth to A.S. the day before. A.J.S. was incarcerated at the time at the Monmouth County Correctional Institute after having been arrested and charged with assault. The Division considered placement of A.S. with her maternal grandmother but found that the grandmother had a history of abuse and there were outstanding warrants for her arrest. The Division's caseworker discussed the matter with A.J.S., who suggested that the A.S. be placed with a family member, L.S. The Division also discovered at this time that A.J.S. had placed J.B. with P.B. shortly after his birth.*fn2
In April 2005, the Division was informed that L.S. had returned the child to A.J.S. without the Division's approval.
L.S. said that she was moving to Pennsylvania and could not care for the child. The Division placed A.S. with her father, K.R. However, A.S. remained with K.R. only four or five days. K.R. requested that the Division remove the child. A.S. then was placed in foster care but when the foster parent became ill, A.S. was placed with P.B. Both children have remained in P.B.'s care since that time.
The Division filed an order to show cause and verified complaint on May 12, 2006, seeking custody of the two children, due to A.J.S.'s history of incarceration, assaultive behaviors and homelessness. The court entered an order granting custody of the children to the Division. Following fact-finding hearings that occurred on October 12, 2005, and November 2, 2005, the court found that A.J.S. had abused and neglected the children as a result of her persistent, untreated drinking problem and assaultive behaviors, and that A.J.S. failed to provide adequate care for the children.
The court conducted a permanency hearing on January 4, 2006. A.J.S. did not attend. The court approved the Division's plan to file a complaint for guardianship because A.J.S. had been non-compliant with services and the children required a permanent placement. The Division filed a complaint on February 27, 2006 seeking guardianship of the children for purposes of foster home adoption.
The matter was tried before Judge Michael A. Guadagno on October 16, 17 and 19, 2006. The Division presented testimony from caseworkers Bernadette Remias-Harris, Ernestine Counts, and Ladeana Hawkins. The Division additionally presented testimony from Dr. Karen D. Wells, a licensed psychologist. Dr. Wells performed a psychological evaluation of A.J.S. as well as evaluations of the bonds between the children and A.J.S. and P.B. A.J.S. testified at the trial but her counsel did not present testimony from any other witness.
The judge filed a written opinion dated October 24, 2006, in which he concluded that the Division had proven by clear and convincing evidence all of the criteria under N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a) for the termination of A.J.S.'s parental rights. The judge entered an order on October 24, 2006 memorializing his findings. This appeal followed.
A.J.S. raises the following arguments for our consideration:
THERE DID NOT EXIST SUBSTANTIAL CREDIBLE EVIDENCE SUPPORTING THE COURT'S FINDING THAT THE "BEST INTERESTS" TEST WAS PROVEN BY CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE.
(A) THERE DID NOT EXIST CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT THE FINDING [THAT] THE HEALTH AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE CHILDREN WAS AND CONTINUED TO BE ENDANGERED BY THE PARENTAL RELATIONSHIP.
(B) THE PARENT IS WILLING OR ABLE TO ELIMINATE THE HARM FACING THE CHILDREN.
(C) THERE DID NOT EXIST CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE THAT THE DIVISION MADE REASONABLE EFFORTS TO PROVIDE SERVICES TO HELP A.J.S. CORRECT THE CIRCUMSTANCE[S] WHICH LED TO HER CHILDREN[']S PLACEMENT OUTSIDE THE HOME.
(D) TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS WILL DO MORE HARM THAN GOOD.
The scope of our review of a trial judge's findings of fact is strictly 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)). A trial judge'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 Family Part judges have particular "expertise in family matters," we must "accord deference" to their findings of fact. Cesare, supra, 154 N.J. at 413.
We are satisfied that there is ample support in the record for the judge's findings of fact and his conclusion that the Division had proven by clear and convincing evidence all of the criteria under N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a) for the termination of A.J.S.'s parental rights. A.J.S.'s arguments to the contrary are without sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(A) and (E). Therefore, we affirm the order terminating A.J.S.'s parental rights to J.B. and A.S. substantially for the reasons stated by Judge Guadagno in his thorough and comprehensive written opinion dated October 24, 2006.