On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Mercer County, Docket No.: FL-11-34-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Lintner and Sabatino.
After a trial, the Family Part entered an order on May 9, 2007, granting the petition of the Division of Youth and Family Services ("DYFS") to establish a kinship legal guardianship ("KLG") for Sarah C.*fn1 with her maternal grandparents. At the time of the trial Sarah was three years old. She had been living continuously with her maternal grandparents since July 2005, when she was removed from the care of J.C., her mother. J.C. now appeals that order. We affirm.
Sarah was born in January 2004. Her biological parents, J.C. and A.B., both have a history of substance abuse. When J.C. was eight months pregnant with Sarah, she tested positive for marijuana and admitted that she had been using drugs. DYFS referred J.C. to a substance abuse evaluation and drug screening, which continued for several months after Sarah's birth. Sarah's father, A.B., is an admitted long-time cocaine user, and he has been incarcerated several times for illegal drug activity.
During the first year of Sarah's life, she resided with her parents and two older half-siblings, who J.C. had given birth to in, respectively, 1995 and 1998. In February 2005, DYFS responded to a third-party report of abuse and neglect in Sarah's household. An ensuing investigation revealed that weapons, ammunition and drug paraphernalia had been kept in the residence within reach of the children. The investigation also confirmed that J.C. had been permitting A.B. to abuse drugs there in the presence of Sarah and her half-siblings.
Upon substantiating the abuse and neglect allegations, DYFS removed all three children from the household of J.C. and A.B. in July 2005. Sarah was placed with her maternal grandmother and step-grandfather, with whom she has continuously resided since that time. Her two half-siblings were placed with their own biological father, who has kept them in his care ever since.
After removing her children to live with other relatives, DYFS referred J.C. to a program known as Family Growth for substance abuse treatment, psychological therapy, parenting classes, and anger management classes. DYFS also referred A.B. to be evaluated and to receive services, although those efforts were impeded by A.B. going in and out of jail. In the meantime, DYFS arranged weekly supervised visits for J.C. with Sarah. J.C. also was ordered by the Family Part to refrain from having contact with A.B.
Initially, it was envisioned that J.C. would reunify with Sarah. However, J.C. failed in several respects to stabilize her life and to meet various requirements of DYFS and the court. Although J.C. temporarily acquired an apartment of her own, she was not able to maintain the bills and eventually was evicted. She was fired from her job. She was terminated from the Family Growth program, because she resisted the therapeutic process and her attendance was inconsistent.
Only two weeks before DYFS had projected to let J.C. take Sarah home, a DYFS case worker conducted an unannounced visit of J.C.'s premises in August 2006. The worker found A.B. present there with J.C., in violation of the outstanding court order, and despite J.C.'s claim to DYFS that she had ended the relationship. That same month, J.C. tested positive for opiates.
Meanwhile, according to the DYFS case notes, Sarah was "thriving" with her grandparents, and "developing normally, both physically and developmentally." Sarah was especially close with her step-grandfather, exhibiting a "special bond" with him. According to DYFS, the grandparents provided "everything that [was] needed for [Sarah's] health."
A psychological evaluation of J.C. performed for DYFS by Alan J. Lee, Psy.D, revealed several impediments to J.C.'s ability to function as a competent ...