On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County, Docket No. FG-15-43-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted August 12, 2008
Before Judges Sapp-Peterson and Baxter.
Defendant C.R., the biological mother of four-year-old J.R., appeals from the June 25, 2007 order of the Family Part that terminated her parental rights to her daughter, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a). The order in question awarded guardianship of J.R. to the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) so that adoption proceedings could commence. The parental rights of J.R.'s natural father, G.R., were also terminated, but he has not appealed.
On appeal, C.R. argues: 1) DYFS's removal of J.R. was "improper and all subsequent proceedings were tainted by that error"; and 2) DYFS failed to establish all of the elements required by N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1, thereby requiring reversal. We affirm.
At trial, DYFS presented the testimony of its caseworker, Xenia Ugarte, and of a psychologist, Alan G. Lee, Psy. D., who performed psychological and bonding assessments. DYFS also presented the testimony of I.C., the caregiver of J.R., who expressed her strong desire to adopt J.R. The record also contains more than 1,100 pages of treatment records, assessments, psychologist reports, visitation reports and contact sheets describing the history of DYFS's involvement with C.R. and documenting the results of DYFS's intervention. C.R. testified but presented no other witnesses on her behalf.
These are the most pertinent facts. C.R. was only sixteen years old when her daughter J.R. was born. At the time of J.R.'s birth, C.R. was living with I.C., an adult woman who lived next door to C.R.'s mother. Indeed, C.R. had been living with I.C. ever since she was eleven years old. That arrangement began when C.R.'s mother became angry about how much time C.R. was spending at I.C.'s house, threw all of C.R.'s clothing out the back door and told C.R. to go live with I.C. C.R.'s mother had a long history of involvement with DYFS, including thirteen separate abuse complaints that DYFS investigated concerning C.R.'s two siblings. On one occasion, C.R.'s mother was arrested for abuse of C.R.'s brother and sister.
After C.R.'s mother threw C.R.'s clothing out the door, C.R. began living with I.C., who raised C.R. by providing her with her own room, helping with her school work and assisting her in finding a part-time job. When C.R. became pregnant with J.R. at age fifteen, I.C. assisted her with pre-natal care and when J.R. was born, taught her how to care for her daughter. As I.C. described it, she and C.R. "co-parent[ed]" J.R. and raised J.R. "together." Indeed, while C.R. was in school and at work, I.C. took care of J.R.
In the fall of 2004, when J.R. was less than a year old, I.C. and C.R. had a "falling out," which resulted in C.R. and J.R. moving out and returning to live with C.R.'s mother. Shortly thereafter, C.R.'s mother abandoned her and returned to Colombia, leaving C.R. and J.R. alone in a hotel. When C.R. called I.C. and asked I.C. if she could "come home," I.C. said yes. I.C. attempted to re-enroll C.R. in school, but the school refused to permit her to do so because I.C. did not have legal guardianship of C.R. It was at that time that DYFS became involved, although it is not clear from the record whether the school or I.C. requested DYFS involvement. In any event, DYFS assumed custody of C.R. in December 2004, which enabled DYFS to re-enroll C.R. in school.
All went well until approximately April 2005, when the relationship between I.C. and C.R. again became "strained," this time by other people's insinuations. The friction between the two intensified, culminating in an argument in which C.R. called I.C. "a few names that really hurt." The two agreed that C.R. and J.R. should no longer live with I.C., whereupon I.C. called DYFS. DYFS enrolled C.R. in Harbor House, but J.R. remained with I.C. because Harbor House did not permit children to reside there.
Some seven months later, in July 2005, DYFS placed J.R. with the Children's Home Society (CHS) in a Mommy and Me Program. Both C.R. and J.R. entered the program together. By that point, C.R. was pregnant with her second child.*fn1 On July 15, 2005, DYFS caseworkers visited C.R. at CHS in response to a report of a case manager there that C.R. was neglecting J.R., not feeding her and locking her in a bedroom. Staff at the CHS suspected that C.R. was planning to run away for the weekend and abandon J.R. When DYFS caseworkers confronted C.R. about those allegations, C.R. responded by claiming that there was no food at CHS and bugs were rampant. She also stated that she hated it there and wanted to leave. The DYFS caseworkers checked the cupboards and refrigerators and saw considerable quantities of food. They also looked for bugs and infestation, but found none.
Nonetheless, C.R. repeated that she hated living there and wanted to leave. She became emotional and told the DYFS caseworkers to go ahead and remove J.R. immediately because "that's what [they] were there to do anyway." The caseworkers insisted that such was not their intention, that they had purchased a crib for J.R. and were not there to take J.R. away. According to the DYFS caseworker, C.R. said "she did not believe us, she said that DYFS likes taking children and since that's our job, we might as well take [J.R.] now instead of prolonging it."
When the caseworker stepped outside to contact her supervisor, C.R. walked down the driveway, down the street and left without coming back, thereby abandoning J.R. When the caseworker explained to her supervisor what had just occurred, the supervisor issued an order to effect a removal and take J.R. into DYFS custody.
On DYFS's instructions, CHS called local police and reported C.R. missing. Police found C.R. a few blocks away. C.R. insisted that she would not return to CHS and threatened to run away if she was placed back there. According to the caseworker, when C.R. was informed that DYFS had removed J.R. from her custody, "C.R. said goodbye [to J.R.] with a quick hug and kiss, no emotion was shown and no crying took place by either mother or baby. [C.R.] told [J.R.] she would go to court and file for custody of her and see her again on Monday." C.R. went to live with her mother in Union County, who had since returned from Colombia. DYFS returned J.R. to the custody of I.C. who, according to the caseworker, "was thrilled to have the little girl back." I.C. promised that she would not permit C.R. to return until C.R. had learned to become a better mother.
C.R. did not ever contact DYFS to express any regret for having abandoned J.R. at CHS. Nor did C.R. ever ask her DYFS caseworker what steps she might take to ameliorate the situation. In fact, for an unspecified period of time after DYFS removed J.R. in July 2005, DYFS caseworkers were unable to locate C.R., causing her to be placed on "missing status for awhile." This, too, exacerbated the breakdown of C.R.'s relationship with J.R. In November 2005, the court was forced to suspend C.R.'s visitation with J.R. due to her "non-compliance" with required counseling services. Although visitation was reinstated, C.R.'s non-compliance with services led the court to again suspend C.R.'s visitation for a brief period in June 2006.
Dr. Lee performed psychological evaluations of C.R. and I.C., as well as a bonding evaluation of J.R. with both C.R. and I.C. In his psychological evaluation of C.R., Dr. Lee concluded that C.R. had no major mental illness or history of substance abuse and possessed adequate cognitive and intellectual functioning. Nonetheless, according to Dr. Lee, C.R. did "show signs of some maladaptive personality traits that have adversely impacted her functioning and adjustment in different areas of her life." Dr. Lee opined that C.R. suffers from an "impluse control disorder" and is "a characteristically rather defended and guarded individual who is also rather inflated in her views of herself. This generally reflects a less mature and instead more primitive psychological organization and ...