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Division of Youth and Family Services v. L.A.

June 13, 2008


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, FG-07-113-07.

Per curiam.



Submitted April 8, 2008

Before Judges Yannotti and LeWinn.

L.A. appeals from an order entered by the Family Part on June 20, 2007, terminating her parental rights to her minor son, K.S.A.H., and awarding guardianship of the child to the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS).*fn1 We affirm.

K.S.A.H., born on November 8, 2005, is L.A.'s fourth child. At the time of K.S.A.H.'S birth his three siblings, ranging in age from two-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half years old, were in the care of their maternal great-grandmother, having been removed from L.A.'s care on an emergency basis on June 30, 2005. K.S.A.H. was removed from L.A.'s custody and placed in foster care on November 14, 2005. DYFS had explored the possibility of placing K.S.A.H. with his siblings; however, the maternal great-grandmother was caring for seven children and did not wish to take custody of K.S.A.H.

L.A. has a long history of involvement with DYFS, dating back to June 1998. She was unable to maintain stable housing for her three older children, and was compelled to move with them on at least six occasions between March 2002 and June 2005.

DYFS provided services to L.A. and her three older children between 2002 and 2005.

During that time L.A. was, by her own admission, involved in chronic alcohol abuse. She was also charged with and convicted of arson, for which she received a three-year probationary term. The circumstances under which her three older children were removed from her care and custody in June 2005 involved a referral to DYFS from the Newark Police Department because L.A.'s two younger children, then four and two years old, were found home alone. The oldest of the three children, who was living with the paternal grandmother at the time, reported to DYFS that L.A. had left all three children home alone on other occasions. DYFS thereupon initiated abuse and neglect proceedings against L.A. on behalf of three older children.

Once the three older children had been placed in the care of their maternal great-grandmother, DYFS initiated reunification efforts by scheduling psychological and drug/alcohol abuse evaluations for L.A. DYFS also referred L.A. to parenting skills classes.

L.A. was diagnosed with alcohol dependence and was referred to an intensive outpatient program at St. Michael's Hospital in Newark. L.A.'s attendance in this program was interrupted due to complications of her pregnancy with K.S.A.H.

A psychological evaluation completed on August 4, 2005, concluded that L.A. had "impaired social competence and symptoms consistent with a major psychological disorder." The evaluator, Dr. Leslie Trott, opined that L.A. was not capable of independently parenting her children and recommended that she undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

Dr. Sonia Oquendo conducted a psychiatric evaluation of L.A. on November 30, 2005. Dr. Oquendo concluded that L.A. had "limited insight into her problems and . . . tends to minimize her alcohol consumption and its impact on her parenting skills and responsibilities." Dr. Oquendo recommended that reunification between L.A. and K.S.A.H. be conditioned upon L.A.'s compliance with all of DYFS's requirements, including treatment for alcohol abuse.

DYFS once again referred L.A. to the alcohol treatment program at St. Michael's Hospital. However, L.A. failed to return to St. Michael's for treatment. L.A. was referred to Final Stop Family Services for individual counseling, but was terminated within two months due to excessive absences and lack of compliance.

L.A. underwent another DYFS-referred psychiatric evaluation with Dr. Alexander Iofin in January 2006. Dr. Iofin opined that L.A. "has a significant amount of problems related to alcohol abuse" and "has a significant amount of maladaptive personality traits, . . . using deception and untruthfulness as the major defense mechanisms, based on review of her psychological profile." Dr. Iofin recommended that, as a prerequisite to reunification with her children, L.A. must have twelve months of documented abstinence from alcohol as well as stable housing and evidence of financial means to support the children and to meet her parental responsibilities.

L.A. underwent an updated psychological evaluation with Dr. Trott in March 2006. While Dr. Trott found L.A. to be somewhat more competent and productive than she had appeared in the first evaluation, the doctor nonetheless opined that L.A.'s "social and emotional functioning reveals that she is exceedingly deceptive and does not confront her own personal weaknesses and difficulties." Dr. Trott concluded: "She does not show evidence of sustaining the insight necessary to personally question her own weaknesses."

L.A. engaged in alcohol treatment at New Directions Behavioral Health Center, commencing on March 13, 2006, upon referral by DYFS. She tested positive for alcohol on May 20 and May 24, 2006. On June 6, 2006, New Directions informed DYFS that L.A. had admitted to continued alcohol use and she was recommended for inpatient treatment at the Straight and Narrow program. Despite a court order to attend Straight and Narrow, L.A. continued at New Directions. By September 2006, L.A.'s attendance at New Directions was sporadic. L.A. acknowledged that she had failed to attend the program, citing her work schedule and other stressors in her life, including court appearances, as the reason.

As of the time of trial, in June 2007, L.A. had been employed as a hair salon receptionist since November 2006; her weekly take-home pay was "about $200." She had been in her own apartment for a short time in 2006 until her rental assistance terminated causing her to move in with a friend. She moved two additional times between January 2007 and the time of trial. At trial she testified that she was renting a bedroom in a friend's home and she had an application pending for a two-bedroom apartment.

L.A. had visitation with K.S.A.H. after his placement in foster care. Initially she had bi-weekly visits at DYFS's office. In March 2007, she commenced weekly visits through the Reunity House program. On occasion, L.A. would visit K.S.A.H. with her three other children, sometimes at Reunity House and sometimes at the home of her great-grandmother.

The Reunity House clinician who supervised L.A.'s visits noted that the family enjoyed one another's company. The clinician further indicated that she would like to continue to work with L.A. to develop structure for the visits with her children and to help her find ways to meet all of her children's needs.

DYFS referred L.A. for another psychological evaluation, with Andrew Brown, Ph.D., on March 26, 2007. Dr. Brown opined that L.A. failed to demonstrate that she is ready to parent K.S.A.H., and noted that L.A. exhibited very poor insight. She evidenced a consistent pattern of "faking good," meaning that she appeared very defensive and in denial, and ...

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