January 29, 2009
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF E.D, A MINOR.
On appeal from the Superior Court, Chancery Division, Family Part, Passaic County, FG-16-21-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 12, 2009
Before Judges Lisa and Sapp-Peterson.
Defendant, G.F., appeals from a judgment of guardianship terminating her parental rights to her daughter, E.D., who was born on February 16, 1999.*fn1 Defendant argues that the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or Division) failed to present clear and convincing evidence to satisfy its burden of establishing all four prongs of the best interests of the child test. Defendant also argues that her due process rights were violated by the admission in evidence of impermissible hearsay, namely the report of Dr. Margaret DeLong, a psychologist. Finally, for the first time on appeal, defendant argues that her due process rights were violated by allowing a testifying psychologist, Dr. Rachel Jewelewicz-Nelson, to render and opinion that termination of parental rights would not do more harm than good to E.D. We reject these arguments and affirm.
The Division first became involved with defendant and E.D. on March 5, 2003, based on E.D.'s report to school personnel of physical abuse and E.D.'s prior attendance at school with redness on her face. Although defendant admitted hitting E.D. with a belt, the Division's investigation found the allegations of abuse unsubstantiated. On April 18, 2003, defendant admitted herself to Saint Mary's Hospital. She reported depression, homicidal thoughts, suspicion and paranoia. Defendant's discharge summary noted that "she was irritable and expressed wishes to kill a lot of people" and said "if she would have [had] a gun she would blow their heads off." Defendant was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Her discharge summary listed four prior psychiatric hospital admissions, noncompliance with medication since terminating outpatient treatment, and a history of cocaine and alcohol abuse. Defendant was referred for continuing psychiatric care and prescribed medication.
The case was again activated with an anonymous report on August 19, 2005, alleging that defendant and a male friend used heroin while watching E.D. Defendant acknowledged to DYFS representatives that she smoked marijuana the previous week when E.D. was out of the house, but denied using illegal drugs in E.D.'s presence. She acknowledged consuming two beers daily, and that she sometimes had E.D. bring the beer to her. She also acknowledged drinking liquor. She said she was taking Prozac for depression and was not engaged in counseling. A criminal background check revealed that defendant was arrested on narcotics charges in 1995 and 1997 and charged with stealing merchandise in 1999.
Although the Division determined that the allegations of neglect from defendant's alleged heroin use were unfounded, the Division felt concern for E.D. because of defendant's history of "mental illness, substance abuse, and criminal activity." A substance abuse evaluation was ordered, and defendant reported a long history of marijuana and cocaine use and alcohol abuse. A test was negative for drug and alcohol use at that time. Defendant reported having homicidal thoughts, and the contact sheet noted that defendant was "Bi-polar and borderline schizophrenic. Mother seemed delusional[,] anxious and withdrawn." Based upon this information, the Division referred defendant for a psychological evaluation by Dr. DeLong, which was conducted on September 12, 2005. In her report of that date, Dr. DeLong summarized her clinical impressions and recommendations:
[Defendant] demonstrates poor reality testing. . . .
[Defendant]'s responses on the testing (MCMI-III) also indicated serious paranoid and delusional thinking. . . .
[Defendant]'s responses during the interview indicate that she also experiences significant depression. She indicated that she has been hospitalized on several occasions for depression. She stated that her depression has interfered with her functioning. In the past, she was not able to leave her house for six to nine months. She stated that she was too tired to bring her daughter to day care. She reported feeling overwhelmed with poor coping skills. Her depressive feelings appear to be current, as well as longstanding and debilitating. She stated that she was also hospitalized in the past for suicidal thoughts. Her MCMI-III profile was also elevated for major depression, dysthymia, and depressive personality traits.
[Defendant] reported current homicidal thoughts. She stated that she desired to obtain a gun so that she could kill her intended victims. When questioned about her statements in an attempt to assess her seriousness, [defendant] stated twice that she would like to kill these people. When asked if she would kill them if she had a gun, she said, "Of course. Because they're always laughing." When asked again if she really meant that she would kill if she had a gun, she said, "That's what I meant. I was really gonna kill 'em." This is particularly a concern because [defendant] talked about ways that she could obtain a gun, such as asking people for a gun, and going to New York to obtain one. This is also a concern based on her history of violence.
Regarding her history of violence, [defendant] disclosed that she stabbed a woman at work in North Carolina. Not only is this act a significant concern, but her manner in relating the incident is a concern. She talked about the incident with no remorse. She was very matter of fact as she talked about stabbing a woman on her head, her neck, "upside her head," and tearing the woman's clothes off. It is also a concern that [defendant] stated that she did not even realize that she was stabbing the woman while she was doing it.
[Defendant] also disclosed a history of substance abuse problems. She stated that she was also hospitalized for substance abuse. She also has a criminal history involving drugs. Her criminal history is also reportedly significant for prostitution and assault.
[Defendant] also disclosed a history of trauma. She stated that she was verbally and physically abused by her mother. She also alleged physical abuse by her step-father. She also stated that she was kidnapped, and that she was raped at the age of 15. She also stated that she was sexually assaulted by her employer when she was a "nanny" at the age of 11.
[Defendant] is not capable of providing minimally adequate parenting at this time. She demonstrates poor reality testing with significant paranoia and delusions of persecution. She is also significantly depressed, feeling overwhelmed by feelings of sadness and anger. Her delusions of persecution coupled with her anger may predispose her to violence. The fact that she has behaved violently in the past adds to this concern. She has a history of criminal behavior and substance abuse behavior. It is also a serious concern that she reported having current homicidal thoughts. Her delusions of persecution, anger, homicidal thoughts, previous violent behavior, and lack of remorse place her at high risk of harm. It is noted that her thoughts of harming others do not appear related to her daughter, but rather against the people she believes are harassing her. Other concerns are that she did not adequately plan for [E.D.] when she was hospitalized before. At first she did not remember who she left her daughter with. Then when she remembered, she stated that this person was not a good person to leave her daughter with, and that this person did not adequately care for her. It is also a concern that currently, [defendant] does not have electricity in her residence. To her credit, [defendant] is open to receiving assistance and was willing to voluntarily hospitalize herself.
Recommendations are as follows:
1. . . . [defendant] be hospitalized for psychiatric evaluation and treatment. . . . It is important that homicidality and suicidality be monitored and considered as a factor in discharge planning.
2. It is important that [defendant] comply with all recommendations during her hospitalization, as well as upon her discharge. Due to her history of frequent hospitalizations, she is likely going to require a high level of psychiatric care upon her discharge.
3. It is recommended that supervised visitation with [E.D.] only occur after [defendant] has demonstrated mental health stability. However, visitation would be contraindicated at this time if her daughter does not feel safe doing so. Information about how [E.D.] feels about visitation is not known by this evaluator. At this time, it is not known what progress [defendant] will make, and whether her progress will render her capable of having unsupervised contact with her daughter, or having her daughter eventually returned to her care.
4. It is not known how [defendant] will respond to treatment, including antipsychotic medication. It is recommended that she participate in a psychological reevaluation after she has demonstrated progress in treatment and demonstrated stability.
Defendant was diagnosed with "Schizophrenia, Paranoid Type (delusions of persecution predominant) . . . Personality Disorder NOS (depressive, schizoid, avoidant, dependent, compulsive, paranoid and schizotypal personality traits . . .) . . . problems with primary support group . . . [and] problems related to the social environment." Arrangements were made for defendant to voluntarily admit herself for psychiatric hospitalization.
Based on Dr. DeLong's conclusions, the Division determined that neglect of E.D. was substantiated and defendant was not capable of caring for E.D. The Division removed E.D. on an emergency basis pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:6-8:29 and 9:6-8:30 and without a court order, and placed E.D. with family friend S.J. on September 12, 2005.
A custody hearing was conducted on September 14, 2005, resulting in an order for E.D.'s removal and placement in the custody of the Division. In September 2005, defendant made frequent harassing phone calls to S.J. Defendant participated in supervised visits with E.D. during this time, and interacted appropriately with her. On November 1, 2005, the court ordered continued placement outside the home, but the long term goal was reunification of E.D. and defendant.
On November 18, 2005, E.D. underwent a Comprehensive Health Evaluation for Children (CHEC). She "demonstrated and expressed feelings of depression and sadness. . . . [and] anxiety and worry regarding her mother's well-being." E.D. reported past abuse by defendant on multiple occasions involving the use of a belt and a tree branch that left marks on her arms and legs. E.D. did not previously report the abuse because she was "afraid people would laugh at me." The evaluator recommended that E.D. undergo therapy focusing on her separation from her mother, prior abuse, and adjustment to her initial and upcoming placements.
On January 11, 2006, the court ordered defendant to obtain psychological and psychiatric evaluations and to attend outpatient mental health counseling. The court ordered the Division to retain custody of E.D., although defendant would have weekly supervised visits with her. Defendant stipulated that removal of E.D. was necessary because defendant was unable to care for E.D. in September 2005 due to her psychiatric issues.
On January 19, 2006, E.D. was moved from S.J.'s home to the foster home of C.H. Throughout this time, defendant continued to participate in supervised visits with E.D. However, rather than participating in court ordered weekly counseling sessions, defendant reported only monthly.
At a supervised visit on April 12, 2006, defendant became abusive and aggressive toward a caseworker, who described that she advised [defendant] that I would have to terminate the visit if she continued with this language. She said, ["]I don't give a fuck what you do. You don't tell me what to say.["] She was now in my face. I was standing by the door. Other visits were taking place, they heard her as well along with other co-workers.
I said ["T]hat is it, the visit is over.["] She said, ["Y]ou don't tell me what to do bitch, I should beat your ass.["]
I was standing by the kitchen door with it slightly open. She made a move and I closed the door in her face. At that point I felt threatened.
Based on that incident, the court temporarily suspended defendant's visitation rights and ordered the Division to explore resources for therapeutic supervised visits. On May 12, 2006, defendant reported to DYFS that she had relapsed and inquired about drug treatment plans. Although she found a program, the program reported to the Division that defendant was not attending and had taken no urine screen tests.
On July 31, 2006, C.H. advised Division worker Gillian Batts that defendant told C.H. that she did not like Batts and wanted to kill her. C.H. expressed her fear that defendant knew where she lived and "might come after me."
From June to August of 2006, defendant had supervised visits with E.D. as part of the Paterson YMCA's supervised visitation program. At the August 2, 2006 visit, defendant stated she would be away for three weeks. Pursuant to a court order, defendant completed inpatient substance abuse treatment on August 24, 2006.
Earlier in 2006, DYFS workers were in communication with defendant's relatives in North Carolina, who expressed an interest in caring for E.D. On August 21, 2006, the court transferred physical custody of E.D. to her maternal aunt in North Carolina. The court also determined that termination of defendant's parental rights followed by adoption was appropriate. After a time, E.D. moved in with her maternal grandmother in North Carolina. Appropriate interstate agency arrangements were made between the Division and North Carolina authorities. E.D. has been in her grandmother's home, where she has a cousin a few years older than her who she considers her "buddy." She has contacts with other family members, including her two older brothers, who are in their mid-twenties (also defendant's children). Through the supervision of DYFS workers and North Carolina caseworkers, the record establishes without contradiction that E.D. is happy, well adjusted, doing well in school, glad to have ongoing contact with her relatives, and is in a good situation. The grandmother wishes to adopt E.D. and, as of the time of trial, was completing arrangements for approval as an adoptive home.
In the latter part of 2006, defendant was again admitted to an outpatient treatment center. The program recommended long term inpatient treatment to address defendant's substance dependence and mental health issues, but defendant stopped her treatment. On October 6, 2006, defendant was admitted to St. Joseph's Hospital for psychiatric treatment. At her request, defendant was discharged on January 30, 2007, although the program recommended further treatment. Her discharge summary noted bipolar disorder, psychosis and polysubstance dependence, and stated that she missed appointments with the psychiatrist, the clinician and group therapy sessions, and that she had a hostile outburst in group therapy. The summary concluded that she showed "No progress, increase in symptoms . . . still drinks at times. [P]aranoid ideation - feels clinician is talking about her to others."
On October 30, 2006, defendant visited the Division office and confronted a Division worker. According to the Division's record, [defendant] appeared agitated and spoke [in a] very loud tone of voice. She began her conversation by making threats against the worker. Her threats consisted of physically aggravate [sic] the worker and she even mentioned to kill [sic] the worker. [The worker] addressed with her the threats she made and the impact that they will have in her case. She eventually apologized for her behavior.
On November 9, 2006, the Division filed a guardianship complaint seeking termination of defendant's parental rights to E.D. On January 9 and 18, 2007, Dr. Jewelewicz-Nelson conducted a psychological evaluation of defendant. Defendant reported having four severe breakdowns, crack use between 1992 and 1995 and in the spring of 2006, marijuana use since 1984, and alcohol use. Defendant denied homicidal or suicidal ideation, expressed her intent to complete her education, obtain employment, and move to a better apartment, and her wish to be reunited with E.D. Defendant described her substandard living conditions, in an apartment infested with rats and insects, and having temperature problems. She said she was currently taking Prozac and Abilify, although she had not taken Abilify the past week.
In her report of January 29, 2007, Dr. Jewelewicz-Nelson concluded:
With respect to content, the information that [defendant] provided at this evaluation is similar to, and consistent with, the information that she provided to Dr. De[L]ong at a previous psychological evaluation. With respect to mood and affect, [defendant] was far less hostile and angry. She expressed resignation to other people's bad behaviors toward her. She denied homicidal ideation or intent.
Psychological evaluation of [defendant] indicates continuing paranoid ideation and sense of victimization that seriously interferes with activities of daily living. Although [defendant] was quite pleasant, nominally cooperative, and compliant throughout the evaluation, she had trouble responding to questions directly. Her answers tended to be tangential, disorganized, and confusing. Eye contact was erratic. Speech was rapid and somewhat pressured at times.
At the second session . . . [defendant] reported that she had not taken her Abilify all week. Her explanation was that her pharmacy did not have it in stock . . . . Monday was a holiday . . . Tuesday it was too cold to go out, Wednesday she told her therapist about it, and as of that morning she had not yet refilled the prescription. She is very busy doing all these evaluations and taking the tests to get her certification in medical billing, and she just has not gotten to it. She reported that she does not feel a difference without this medication. This is an example of [defendant]'s poor coping and problem-solving skills, poor time management, and lack of understanding of her psychiatric illness.
Also at the second session, I asked [defendant] for a realistic time frame by which she anticipated being ready to resume custody of her daughter. [Defendant] responded that [E.D.] was supposed to have come back in August because that is when she had completed everything that DYFS had required. But her DYFS caseworker did not do what she was supposed to do. The caseworker did not get her a bus pass, so [defendant] could not do her program. "I had completed everything I could . . . Evidently they must have had it in for me . . ." [S]he did not finish the sentence, but the implication was clear that she had done everything she could but not everything that she was supposed to do. [Defendant] acknowledged that she still had some work to be in the proper frame of mind to regain custody, but she could not provide a specific, concrete, time frame.
Overall, [defendant] reiterated that she becomes easily flustered and overwhelmed when her environment is chaotic; that she experiences her environment as predominantly chaotic much of the time; and that things in her life do not work out due to the malicious lies and deliberate acts against her by others.
Finally, [defendant]'s letter to Judge Fried conveys her suspiciousness, her disjointed manner of speaking, and her sense of entitlement for services, that were evident on interview and throughout this psychological evaluation.
It is my professional judgment that [defendant] continues to suffer from a Schizoaffective Disorder and that she has a Borderline Personality Disorder with anxious, depressive, schizoid, paranoid, avoidant, narcissistic, and dependent traits. She has a limited support system. She exhibits poor judgment and noncompliance with her medication. She has a high risk for regression of sobriety with respect to alcohol and drug abuse. She continues to qualify as a MICA (Mentally Ill Chemically Abusing) patient.
[Defendant] must engage in more intensive treatment:
1. A minimum of monthly psychiatric monitoring for medication compliance and efficacy . . .
2. Ongoing weekly individual and group counseling to address coping and stability issues;
3. Additional AA/NA meetings at least 1-2 times a week to sustain sobriety;
4. Parenting Education. . . . . It is contraindicated to consider reunification at this time, inasmuch as [defendant] is not yet able to take care of herself so it is not safe to trust her with the care of a child. Furthermore, [defendant] must demonstrate an ability to maintain appropriate telephone contact with [E.D.] and her caretakers before face-to-face contact, with supervision, is initiated. Consequently, I do not believe it is clinically indicated to arrange a Bonding Evaluation between [defendant] and [E.D.] at this time.
Trial was held before Judge Sabbath on November 8 and 14, 2007. Defendant was represented by counsel. She attended the first, but not the second, day of trial. The Division produced caseworker Batts and Dr. Jewelewicz-Nelson as witnesses, and introduced into evidence numerous documents, records and reports. Defendant presented no witnesses.
In her testimony, Dr. Jewelewicz-Nelson explained that she reviewed various documents, including Dr. DeLong's evaluation, in developing her assessment of defendant. Dr. Jewelewicz-Nelson gave Dr. DeLong's evaluation "equal weight with the other documents that I reviewed and with my own findings." Dr. Jewelewicz-Nelson's testimony was consistent with the contents of her report. She did not recommend reunification of defendant and E.D. because to a "[r]easonable and acceptable degree of psychological certainty," defendant was not "in a position to safely parent her child. . . ." The opinion was based upon defendant's mental health condition and lack of stability. Dr. Jewelewicz-Nelson felt that reunification would present certain risks to E.D., which she described in detail. Her conclusions were buttressed in large part on defendant's longstanding history of mental health problems, including multiple hospitalizations and prior diagnoses, and defendant's lack of understanding and responsibility in managing her psychiatric illness, as evidenced in her belief that she did not need medication and her failure to take prescribed medication in the week before her evaluation with Dr. Jewelewicz-Nelson.
Dr. Jewelewicz-Nelson did not perform a bonding evaluation between E.D. and defendant. She felt that such an evaluation was unnecessary. Because E.D. was brought up by defendant for the first six years of her life, she assumed there was some bond between them. Even assuming there was such a bond, she was firmly convinced that defendant was not in a position to reunify with E.D., so the result of any bonding evaluation "really wasn't going to make a difference in -- in my recommendation."
In a thorough written opinion, Judge Sabbath described the evidence in detail, and concluded that the Division clearly and convincingly established all four prongs of the best interest test. More particularly, the first prong was satisfied because E.D.'s safety, health or development will be endangered if the parental relationship with G.F. is to continue. G.F. continues to suffer from a Schizoaffective Disorder and has a Borderline Personality Disorder with anxious, depressive, schizoid, paranoid, avoidant, narcissistic and depend[e]nt traits. G.F. has described having active homicidal thoughts regarding people she feels are persecuting her. G.F. has demonstrated that she has a difficult time dealing with her environment when it is chaotic and that it is chaotic most of the time. G.F. has a long history of drug and alcohol abuse and has not had any stable employment.
He determined the Division satisfied the second prong because G.F. is unwilling or unable to eliminate the harm facing the child. G.F. has not properly addressed her substance abuse issues or her mental health issues. G.F. has been in and out of treatment programs and has failed to comply with the requirements and regulations. G.F. also does not comply with her prescribed medications. Furthermore, Dr. [Jewelewicz-] Nelson's testimony was unrebutted and in her expert opinion G.F. is not yet able to take care of herself, thus not able to take care of a child.
He determined the Division satisfied the third prong by providing ample services to G.F. such as counseling and supervised visitation. However, the visitation had to be terminated because of G.F.'s belligerent behavior.
G.F. never fully complied with any of her treatment programs.
The judge determined the Division satisfied the fourth prong because E.D. is placed with her maternal grandmother and is maintaining contact with her siblings. Her health is good and emotionally and educationally she is doing well. The Court notes that the Division has not established any physical abuse; however, it is G.F.'s mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse that is creating an environment in which she cannot adequately care for or raise E.D. In Sorentino v. Family & Children's Society of Elizabeth, 72 N.J. 127, 131-132 (1976), the court noted that "the absence of physical abuse or neglect is not conclusive on the issue of custody. The trial court must consider the potential for serious psychological damage to the child inferential from the proofs." Here, it is evident that G.F. has mental health problems and has had a substantial history of drug and alcohol abuse. She has admitted that she feels her environment is often chaotic and that she has difficulty controlling various aspects of her life. G.F. also asserted that at times she is too exhausted to care for E.D. In addition, G.F. has demonstrated her inability to consistently take her prescribed medication and follow through with counseling and rehabilitative programs. Thus, there is a high potential that E.D. may suffer from psychological damage if parental rights are not terminated.
Accordingly, on December 12, 2007, the judge entered a judgment of guardianship terminating defendant's parental rights to E.D. and awarding guardianship of E.D. to the Division. This appeal followed.
"A parent's right to enjoy a relationship with his or her child is constitutionally protected." In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 346 (1999). Moreover, "[f]ew consequences of judicial action are so grave as the severance of natural family ties." N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591, 600 (1986) (quoting Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 787, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 1412, 71 L.Ed. 2d 599, 628 (1982)). Accordingly, courts have consistently imposed strict standards regarding the termination of parental rights. K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 347. However, "the right of parents to be free from governmental intrusion is not absolute." A.W., supra, 103 N.J. at 599. This is because the State, as parens patriae, has a responsibility to protect the welfare of children. K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 347.
The standard for determining the termination of parental rights is known as the best interests of the child test, originally set forth in A.W. and now codified in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a, which authorizes termination if the Division can show:
(1) The child's safety, health or development has been or will continue to be endangered by the parental relationship;
(2) The parent is unwilling or unable to eliminate the harm facing the child or is unable or unwilling to provide a safe and stable home for the child and the delay of permanent placement will add to the harm. Such harm may include evidence that separating the child from his resource family parents would cause serious and enduring emotional or psychological harm to the child;
(3) The division has made reasonable efforts to provide services to help the parent correct the circumstances which led to the child's placement outside the home and the court has considered alternatives to termination of parental rights; and
(4) Termination of parental rights will not do more harm than good. [N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a.]
DYFS has the burden of proving each factor by clear and convincing evidence. In re Guardianship of R. G. & F., 155 N.J. Super. 186, 193 (App. Div. 1977). Moreover, the four criteria overlap with one another to provide a comprehensive standard that identifies a child's best interest. K.H.O., supra, 161 N.J. at 348.
New Jersey has a strong public policy favoring permanency. Id. at 357. In all guardianship and adoption cases, the child's need for permanency and stability must be accorded primary status. Id. at 357-58.
The findings of a trial judge sitting without a jury are "considered binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence." Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974). Further, because of the particularized expertise of family court judges in family matters, we accord enhanced deference to family court factfinding. Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 413 (1998).
From our review of the record, we are satisfied that the evidence supports the judge's findings that the Division established by clear and convincing evidence all four prongs of the best interests test. We will not disturb those findings on appeal. The judge properly applied the correct principles of law to his factual findings, and we find no error in the result reached.
Further, we are unpersuaded by defendant's evidential arguments. Dr. DeLong's report was properly admitted in evidence. R. 5:12-4(d). It was admitted for the limited purpose of forming the basis for the Division's removal. And, unlike the circumstances in In re Civil Commitment of E.S.T., 371 N.J. Super. 562 (App. Div. 2004), relied upon by defendant, Dr. Jewelewicz-Nelson conducted her own thorough psychological evaluation of defendant, reached her own conclusions, and rendered her own opinion. She did not give undue weight to Dr. DeLong's report or opinion, but utilized it as part of defendant's history and background in making her own assessment. This is the kind of report routinely relied upon by psychologists making evaluations in cases such as these, and was properly considered by Dr. Jewelewicz-Nelson in forming her opinions. N.J.R.E. 703.
Finally, we reject defendant's argument, which was not raised in the trial court, that Dr. Jewelewicz-Nelson's opinion was erroneously admitted and prejudicial because it lacked a sufficient factual or psychological foundation. On the contrary, psychological testimony is routinely admitted as scientific evidence. State v. Free, 351 N.J. Super. 203, 214 (App. Div. 2002). Such testimony plays a "critical role" in determining termination cases. In re Guardianship of J.C., J.C. & J.M.L., 129 N.J. 1, 22 (1992). Defendant repeatedly argues that a bonding evaluation between defendant and E.D. was necessary as a prerequisite to Dr. Jewelewicz-Nelson's opinion that termination of parental rights would not do more harm than good. We do not agree.
As we previously recounted, Dr. Jewelewicz-Nelson assumed for purposes of her analysis that there was a bond between mother and daughter, but because defendant was unable to care for herself or a child, such a bond would not alter her opinion that termination was in the child's best interest. Indeed, Dr. Jewelewicz-Nelson's bottom line opinion was that it was "[a]bsolutely" in E.D.'s best interest not to be reunified with her mother. Thus, the absence of a bonding evaluation was not relevant to her opinion. She was qualified to render that opinion. The weight to be attributed to it was within the province of the trier of fact.