On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Sussex County, Docket No. FG-19-17-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Fuentes and Chambers.
Defendant C.B. is the biological mother of thirteen-year old K.B., ten-year old K.V., and eight-year old J.B. Defendant G.B. is the biological father of K.B. and J.B. Defendant P.B. is the biological father of K.V. All three defendants appeal from the judgment entered by the Family Part terminating their respective parental rights to these children. We consolidate these three appeals for the purpose of addressing the issues raised by the parties.
After a careful review of the evidence presented before the Family Part, we affirm. We recognize that when viewed as separate and distinct events, the acts or instances of neglect discovered by the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) through its long-term involvement with this family do not appear to warrant termination of the parties' parental rights. However, when these events are considered as a whole, they paint a disturbing and consistent pattern of ineffectual parenting by defendants.
The evidence shows that these defendants have consistently neglected the children's educational needs, by failing to insure that they attend school on a regular basis. The magnitude of the intellectual harm inflicted as a consequence of this neglect cannot be overstated. The record also shows that these children were deprived of basic dental care. Although indisputably serious, the complete medical ramifications from this form of neglect remains undetermined.
Despite multiple efforts by DYFS, these three defendants have proven incapable of providing these children with a safe and secure home environment. Adoption is now the only viable option. Given their ages, it is critical that these children be afforded the opportunity to find a home with a stable and loving adoptive family as soon as possible.
DYFS's involvement began shortly after C.B. gave birth to K.B. on March 24, 1995. Approximately five months after the child's birth, DYFS received a referral from a home health care nurse. A DYFS representative spoke with C.B.'s family members; they alleged that C.B. gave her baby beer, did not properly care for the infant's needs, and used vulgar language toward her.
When interviewed by the DYFS representative, C.B. claimed that the child's father, (defendant G.B.) had a significant drinking problem. The DYFS representative established a case plan for the family, which included G.B. submitting to substance abuse evaluation, C.B. agreeing to limit her emotional outbursts, and addressing K.B.'s medical needs, including insurance.
Less than a year later, C.B. was incarcerated for assaulting G.B. The couple admitted that they had been drinking during this incident. K.B. was not present. C.B. was eventually convicted of this offense and sentenced to probation. As conditions to probation, C.B. was ordered to: (1) attend marriage counseling; (2) attend one Alcoholics Anonymous meeting a week; (3) abstain from the use of drugs and alcohol; and (4) not have any contact with G.B., until marriage counseling occurred.
Four months thereafter, on July 25, 1996, DYFS received another referral, this time from a friend or neighbor. The caller informed DYFS that the family was staying at a motel together, in violation of the restraining order prohibiting C.B. from having contact with G.B. A DYFS representative found the couple and their daughter at a different motel. C.B. admitted the existence of the restraining order; she told DFYS, however, that they recently moved into a motel together when she became homeless. Based on this referral, DYFS reopened a case for services due to concerns about domestic violence, homelessness, and the parties disobeying a court order. The couple signed a case plan agreeing to obey the court order and participate in evaluations.
Thereafter, efforts by DYFS to provide immunization for the child K.B. were unsuccessful for an extended period of time. From this point until November 1997, C.B. and G.B. consistently failed to take advantage of services offered by DYFS, including substance abuse counseling, housing and rental assistance, and general parenting services. At the same time, the couple was constantly existing in crisis mode. They had been evicted from their apartment, and were constantly moving from place to place.
During this time, C.B. became pregnant with K.V. (the child of P.B.). C.B. failed to avail herself of prenatal care services offered by DYFS. K.V. was born on November 18, 1997. By December, C.B. had allowed welfare benefits to lapse and lost family Medicaid coverage. For several months thereafter C.B. became unreachable for both DYFS and her probation officer.
DYFS continued to receive reports of neglect involving both children throughout 1999. The third child, J.B., was born on August 23, 1999. Almost two years later, in 2001, DYFS received referrals alleging that the children were not properly cared for, were dirty, unsupervised, and routinely disciplined using loud and vulgar language. Specifically, K.B., who was now of school age, was not consistently attending school, and wore dirty, messy clothes. The biggest concern surfacing at around this time period was K.B.'s chronic absenteeism from school.
The family continued in a heightened level of dysfunction throughout this time, living in motels, and relying primarily on odd jobs and public assistance as their primary source of income. On May 28, 2002, K.B.'s school submitted a referral to DYFS expressing concern about K.B. missing thirty-five days of school; the child also had excessive tooth decay. Three days later, a DYFS worker made an unannounced visit to the couple's residence at a local motel. C.B. indicated that K.B. saw a dentist nine months ago and that she would schedule her an appointment. She blamed K.B.'s absences on illness and lack of transportation. When the DYFS worker spoke with K.B., she noticed her front teeth appeared "brownish."
On June 1, 2002, C.B. took K.B. to a hospital emergency room because she was suffering from an abscessed tooth after her front tooth had decayed. On August 29, 2002, K.B.'s school again contacted DYFS stating that she had missed a total of ninety days of school in kindergarten. In first grade, although her attendance was improved, she had missed the last two weeks of school. DYFS again responded with offers of support services, including housing. As of October 21, 2002, K.B. had not seen a dentist, and her teeth continued to deteriorate.
On November 14, 2002, DYFS secured an order from the Family Part allowing it to provide protective and supervisory services to the family, including the three minor children K.B., K.V., and J.B. For the remainder of the year DYFS assisted the family in obtaining dental care, seeing a pediatrician, restoring Medicaid coverage, and finding stable housing. In mid-December K.B.'s school expressed concerns about her hygiene, her seventeen unexcused absences, and her coming to school without lunch.
In March 2003, DYFS investigated an incident involving the alleged molestation of K.B. by C.B.'s friend's teenage son. The teenage boy admitted to the police that he had touched K.B. DYFS arranged counseling for K.B. There is no indication that the child's parents were in any way responsible for this incident. On March 31, 2003, DYFS learned that C.B. and G.B. still had not taken K.B. to the dentist, despite a court order and case plans requiring them to do so. Based on this pattern of indifference, DYFS substantiated C.B. for medically neglecting K.B.
In April of 2003, K.B.'s school reported that it planned to take legal action against C.B. and G.B. because K.B. had eight unexcused absences since she began attending the school on February 28, 2003. Over the entire school year, K.B. had a total of fifty absences. The school also reported that K.B. might need to be in a self-contained class because she was two grades behind academically. As a second grader, she was doing work at a kindergarten level.
Both, K.B. and K.V. finally saw a dentist in April 2003; the dentist found both children needed to see a specialist, and told C.B. to call for a referral once she found a participant of her insurance plan. C.B. did not contact the office again for a referral for K.B. until five months later; she did not request a referral for K.V.
On September 3, 2003, five-year-old K.V.'s school reported that she could not begin attending kindergarten because she did not have current immunization records. K.V. did not start school until nineteen days later, on September 22, 2003. In response to this history of dysfunction, DYFS filed a compliant for the removal of the children from their parents' care. The complaint was filed on September 19, 2003, with the law guardian's support. The Family Part denied the application, but ordered that the parents undergo psychiatric evaluations as an aid in determining what additional services might help the family.
On October 3, 2003, C.B. and G.B. entered into a stipulation before the court in which they admitted that:
[T]hey have been derelict in their parental duties with the child [K.B.] specifically in that they have failed to follow through in a timely fashion with securing appropriate dental attention for her and by failing to properly attend to [K.B.'s] educational needs as evidenced by excessive absenteeism [and] by failing to promptly follow through with Child Study Team Evaluation appointments which necessitates continued court involvement [and] supervision.
C.B. took K.V. and J.B. to the dentist on October 1, 2003; because they arrived almost three hours late, the dentist rescheduled the appointment to October 16, 2003. After a dental screening, the dentist recommended that they see a specialist. On October 7, 2003, K.B. was treated by a dentist, who removed two of her teeth; she remained in need of follow up care. As of April 1, 2004, all three girls had been seen by a dental specialist; K.V. needed four teeth extracted and J.B. needed a total of six extractions. Given the extent of tooth decay, extraction was the only medically viable alternative.
As of April 2004, K.B. was classified as being two grade levels behind in language arts and math; she had missed twenty-three days of school since the beginning of the year. C.B. claimed that some of these absences were caused by K.B. having head lice, which was difficult to treat. The school also reported that K.V. was absent fourteen days during the school year. By the end of the school year, K.B. missed thirty-three days, while K.V. missed twenty-five days.
On January 7, 2005, the Family Part added P.B. as a party defendant to the pending case. On January 18, 2005, P.B. met with a DYFS worker. According to DYFS, P.B. worked at McDonalds, paid child support, and lived with his mother, grandfather, sister, and brother. The last time he had seen K.V. was several months earlier. He admitted that he had been arrested in 1997 for possession of cocaine and later in 1997 for possession of a weapon. In 2004, he violated his probation by testing positive for cocaine. He claimed that he no longer used drugs or alcohol. When asked to submit to a urine screen, P.B. claimed he was unable to do so, at that time. He agreed to return to DYFS's office after drinking some coffee. He did not return as promised.
On June 6, 2005, DYFS initiated another investigation of the family after receiving a phone call from a relative, who reported that the family was transient and living with C.B.'s heroin-addicted brother. The caller also stated that the children were "dirty and [had] rotten teeth." DYFS spoke with G.B.'s aunt, C.Y., who expressed her willingness to have the children stay with her.
According to DFYS, a staff member from the girls' school reported that the girls came to school "filthy," hungry, and had recurring head lice; school authorities had difficulty contacting the parents. K.B. had been classified as a special needs student, and J.B. was so far behind academically, that school officials believed she should also be evaluated to ascertain whether she had a possible learning disability. Despite these concerns, school officials had been unable to contact the children's parents. By the end of the school year, J.B. missed fifty-three days of school and was late twenty-three times, K.V. missed thirty-four-and-one-half days and was late twenty-three times and K.B. missed thirty-six days and was late eighteen times.
On June 23, 2005, DYFS filed an amended complaint for protective custody of K.B., K.V., and J.B. The following day, the Family Part entered an order placing the children in the custody of DYFS, and directing it to provide the parents with services. In support of its ruling, the court found that C.B. and G.B. "have lifestyle instability, lack of housing [and the] complaint reflects chronic neglect." The court further found that P.B. "has failed to comply with Division recommendations [and] court orders."
The court ordered that all three defendants submit to psychological evaluations and cooperate and comply with any recommendations. The court limited parental contact with the children to weekly supervised encounters. The children remained in the physical custody of G.B.'s aunt and her husband, the Ys, for thirty days to give them the opportunity to secure housing that met DYFS's licensing requirements.
On July 29, 2005, Frank J. Dyer, Ph.D. released a psychological report concerning C.B., G.B., and the children. As to G.B., the report concluded that he does not have any significant criminal, drug, alcohol, or psychiatric history, and he is free of mood and thought disorder. Financial difficulties and marital difficulties cause him a lot of stress and there was also a notation that he might be ...