May 21, 2008
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF T.J.B., A MINOR.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County, Docket No. FG-15-19-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted May 7, 2008
Before Judges Wefing, Parker and Koblitz.
Defendant J.A.C.*fn1 , the biological mother of T.J.B., appeals from a judgment entered on July 16, 2007 terminating her parental rights to the child. We affirm.
The following is a summary of facts relevant to the appeal. T.J.B. was born in 2004 addicted to methadone and diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome and hypoglycemia. When the child was born, J.A.C. was married to G.H.B. After treatment, the child was discharged to the care of his parents who were living with G.H.B.'s parents.
In September 2005, when the child was seventeen months old, Berkeley Township Police Department reported to the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) that the parents had fled the paternal grandparents' home with the child, and the paternal grandmother was concerned that both parents were using heroin. Ultimately, J.A.C. and the child were found in Newark. The child was placed with the paternal grandparents and J.A.C. was taken to the hospital to detoxify while waiting for a bed in a drug treatment facility. She left the hospital without medical approval, however, and did not enter the drug treatment program.
Thereafter, the parents virtually abandoned the child at the paternal grandparents' home. DYFS substantiated neglect and was granted legal custody in a protective services order. The child has remained in physical custody of the paternal grandparents since that time.
J.A.C. has been involved with DYFS since October 1998, when she was admitted to Southern Ocean County Hospital after slitting her wrists and overdosing on medication. In January 2001, she was admitted to the hospital after overdosing on cocaine, heroin and marijuana. After the September 2005 referral, DYFS attempted to provide numerous services to the parents, but J.A.C. continued to use drugs, failed to appear at custody hearings and was incarcerated for periods of time.
On November 28, 2005, J.A.C. contacted DYFS inquiring about her husband's whereabouts so that he could obtain bail for her to be released from jail. The caseworker told J.A.C. that her husband was in a drug rehabilitation facility. J.A.C. agreed to report to the caseworker when she was released from jail, but she did not do so.
On January 17, 2006, DYFS learned that G.H.B., the child's father, had died from a drug overdose. Ten days later, DYFS contacted G.H.B.'s cousin and learned that J.A.C. was working for an escort service. DYFS contacted J.A.C., made an appointment with her for February 21, 2006 and arranged to have an aide pick her up and transport her to the DYFS office. J.A.C. did not keep her appointment and called to reschedule. When DYFS contacted her on February 27, 2006, she advised that she had to appear in court in Jersey City on a prostitution charge on March 7, 2006.
On March 2, 2006, when a DYFS caseworker finally met with J.A.C., she signed releases and told DYFS that she was ready to enter a drug detoxification and rehabilitation program. At that meeting, she admitted she used two bags of heroin and one vial of cocaine that morning just to get through the day. DYFS located a bed at a substance abuse rehabilitation facility but she refused to go, claiming that she had to be in court on March 7 and had to say goodbye to her friends.
On March 7, 2006, DYFS advised J.A.C. that they would pick her up at 6:00 a.m. the next morning after her court appearance and take her to the rehabilitation program. She agreed and said she would be ready. She did not appear. DYFS continued efforts to contact her through the month of March without success. By April 12, 2006, the rehabilitation facility closed her out of the program for non-compliance.
In June 2006, J.A.C. was located at her aunt's house and was served with the pleadings for the abuse and neglect case and notice for the scheduled permanency hearing. By July 21, 2006, she had been told to leave her aunt's house because of her continued drug abuse. She failed to appear at the permanency hearing on July 27. At that hearing, a plan for terminating parental rights was approved and the grandparents indicated that they were eager to adopt the child.
Thereafter, DYFS contacted J.A.C. a number of times and attempted to have her enter and complete a substance abuse program. In each instance, she either failed to appear or failed to complete the program.
On June 1, 2007, J.A.C. appeared in court and was advised that the termination trial was scheduled for July 16. At that time, her attorney represented to the court that she had been sentenced recently to a four-year probationary term for possession of heroin. The attorney represented that she was screened for drug abuse regularly and the most recent test on May 24 was negative. J.A.C. represented to the court that she was starting cosmetology school full time, that she was starting a parenting class and was waiting for a referral to a substance abuse program.
On July 16, 2007, however, J.A.C. failed to appear for trial. Her attorney indicated that he had been unable to reach her but that he was prepared to go forward. He further advised the court that the psychologist retained to testify on J.A.C.'s behalf had not been able to evaluate her.
The court proceeded with the testimony of Dr. Margaret Beekman, who testified on behalf of DYFS that the child was strongly and securely bonded to the paternal grandparents and was likely to see them as his psychological parents. She opined that it would be highly traumatic for the child to be removed from the paternal grandparents' care; that J.A.C. could not provide a stable environment for the child; and that her prognosis for change was "guarded." Dr. Beekman stated that she believed adoption by the paternal grandparents, rather than a kinship legal guardianship, was in the child's best interest. The DYFS caseworker, Stephanie Ronau, testified as to the case history and DYFS's involvement with J.A.C.
After hearing the testimony, the trial court rendered a decision on the record in which it reviewed the case history and analyzed the four factors for termination of parental rights articulated in N.J. Div. of Youth & Fam. Servs. v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591 (1986), and codified in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1. The court concluded that DYFS clearly and convincingly demonstrated all four factors and J.A.C.'s parental rights were terminated, allowing the paternal grandparents to adopt the child.
In this appeal, J.A.C. argues:
THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN RULING THAT DEFENDANT'S PARENTAL RIGHTS SHOULD BE TERMINATED AS THE STATE FAILED TO PROVE, BY THE REQUIRED CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE, THAT TERMINATION OF THE PARENTAL RIGHTS WAS APPROPRIATE.
THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN NOT RULING THAT KINSHIP LEGAL GUARDIANSHIP WAS APPROPRIATE.
We have carefully considered defendant's arguments in light of the applicable law and we are convinced that they lack sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E). We affirm substantially for the reasons set forth on the record of July 16, 2007 by Judge James M. Blaney. Nevertheless, we add the following comment.
The law guardian, as well as DYFS, argued that termination of parental rights was in the child's best interest and that a legal kinship guardianship would be contrary to N.J.S.A. 3B:12A-1(b), which provides that the arrangement is for situations in which "adoption of the child is neither feasible nor likely, and it is imperative that the State create an alternative, permanent legal arrangement for [the] children and their caregivers." The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee statement on the statute emphasized that awarding kinship legal guardianship must be in the child's best interests and that the birth parent retains an obligation to pay child support and the right to visitation or parenting time with the child. Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee statement to Senate Bill No. 1813-L.2001, c.250, see N.J.S.A. 3B:12-1. Here, the court clearly found that J.A.C. was not able or willing to do either. In short, there is no merit to J.A.C.'s claim that the court should have awarded kinship legal guardianship.