On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Hudson County, Docket No. FG-09-152-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 6, 2008
Before Judges Cuff, Fisher and Baxter.
In these consolidated appeals, after carefully considering the record in light of the arguments raised, we affirm the judgment that terminated defendants' parental rights to their three children -- D.S.L. (a son, born on July 26, 1998), S.S.L. (a daughter, born on October 3, 1999), and J.S.L. (a son, born on November 8, 2001).
The testimony adduced during a five-day trial, which the judge found credible, reveals that the Division of Youth and Family Services first became involved with this family in April 1999, when it received an unsubstantiated referral that one of the defendants had thrown D.S.L., who was then an infant, against a wall. Other referrals followed.
In 2003, defendant C.R., the children's mother, and the children were living in a shelter as a result of domestic violence that occurred between defendants. At that time, Dr. Ernesto Perdomo performed a psychological evaluation of the mother and recommended that she engage in parenting skills and anger management classes and that the Division continue to supervise. The Division provided the services of a homemaker and referred the mother to parenting training and anger management classes. In October 2003, a pediatrician observed bruises on S.S.L. The mother acknowledged that she had hit the child with a belt.
In December 2003, another domestic violence incident led the mother to take her children to a shelter. In March 2004, the Division again referred the mother for anger management counseling. She initially refused because she had no child care, but the Division provided assistance in this regard.
In May 2004, the Division substantiated an allegation that defendant A.S.L., the children's father, hit one of the children, causing a bruise across the child's forehead. In February 2005, the mother adamantly refused the Division's referral to anger management counseling. A few months later, the Division responded to a referral indicating that the youngest child was struck by the mother. Although that referral was not substantiated, the mother signed an in-home case plan on April 21, 2005, agreeing to use appropriate discipline methods.
Further referrals of physical abuse were received by the Division in June and August 2005. As a result of assertions by S.S.L. about physical abuse, the mother was interviewed by the prosecutor's office. She was asked whether she had relatives with whom the children could stay; she indicated that she did not. The mother asserted that the Division could take her children because she did not want them, and that "just as easy as it was to give birth to them it is that easy to give them up." The Division immediately removed the children; the mother departed with her boyfriend without saying goodbye to her children.
On August 29, 2005, the Division filed an abuse and neglect complaint and was awarded custody of the children, whom the Division placed in foster care -- the boys in the same home in Jersey City, and the daughter in a home in Bayonne. The mother was ordered to attend a psychological evaluation, and to undergo anger management counseling and parenting skills training. The father was not immediately informed of the removal because the Division could not locate him.
The children's mother proved uncooperative and largely refused the services provided. She attended the first counseling session but failed to schedule or attend further appointments. Approximately one week after the commencement of the abuse and neglect suit, the children's father reached out to the Division and advised he was residing in Pennsylvania with his parents and another male. He asserted that he would do whatever was necessary to obtain custody of the children.
However, when the Division requested the names of all the members of the household and attempted to schedule a home evaluation, the father refused, stating ...