On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Bergen County, FG-02-76-07A.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 26, 2009
Before Judges R. B. Coleman and Simonelli.
C.L. appeals from an order of the Chancery Division, Family Part, entered on February 29, 2008, that terminates her parental rights to three of her four biological children: T.J.B., born on June 17, 2003; J.J.B., born on September 15, 2005; and J.J.B, born on August 7, 2006. A fourth child J.B., born to C.L. on September 3, 2007, is also in the custody of the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or the Division), but he is not a subject of this appeal. The parental rights of J.B., the biological father, were also terminated by the February 29, 2008 order, however, J.B. did not join in this appeal.
DYFS first became involved with C.L. in July 2003, when it received a referral from Birth Haven Shelter to help C.L. and her one-month-old infant obtain permanent housing. No other concerns were raised at the time and DYFS closed its file on that referral in January 2004. In September 2005, DYFS received a referral from the hospital where C.L. delivered her second child. C.L. had told one of the nurses of a domestic violence incident with J.B., her live-in paramour and the father of her children. There were also concerns that C.L. and the infant had morphine in their systems when C.L. gave birth. Upon further investigation, however, DYFS confirmed that the trace of morphine in C.L.'s system was administered by the hospital five days earlier for C.L.'s migraine headache.
In a report dated September 16, 2005, a DYFS caseworker who visited the family home, observed that T.J.B "appeared well taken care of and very happy. He was age appropriate, and the apartment was neat and clean." The domestic violence C.L. had disclosed earlier involved a quarrel with J.B. that had resulted in the two of them hitting each other with an umbrella. T.J.B. was in the apartment when the altercation took place. At that time, DYFS determined the allegations were unfounded; it closed the file on October 7, 2005.
On October 9, 2005, two days later, C.L. and J.B. quarreled again. J.B. attempted to "choke" C.L., who called the police. This incident resulted in a temporary restraining order against J.B., that barred him from the home.
Two days later, on October 11, 2005, DYFS received another referral concerning C.L. from Hackensack University Medical Center. Suffering from clinical postpartum depression, C.L. had called a crisis line because she was severely depressed. She reported having thoughts of harming herself and her child. DYFS determined that since C.L. could not care for the children, J.B. was barred from the home, and no other suitable option could be identified, both children would have to be placed in foster care.
C.L. was an inpatient at the Psychiatric Unit at Hackensack University Medical Center for one week. Upon discharge, she immediately began out-patient treatment for postpartum depression at Quest under the care of Dr. Khadijah Watkins. Three months later, on January 18, 2006, Dr. Watkins informed DYFS of C.L.'s progress, reporting that "she does not appear to be a danger to herself or others as she is not suicidal or homicidal, nor is she depressed or psychotic." DYFS also referred C.L. to numerous programs, all of which C.L. participated in, or completed. C.L. was allowed to visit her two children once weekly for one hour through the DYFS visitation program.
The DYFS plan at that time was reunification. In fact, after seven months in foster care, the two children were returned to C.L. on May 25, 2006, where she was a resident of Shelter Our Sisters. DYFS kept the file open for services and continued to supervise C.L. Then, in July 2006, C.L. was accused of stealing jewelry from another resident, and she was no longer attending therapy sessions at Vantage Health System. She was asked to leave Shelter Our Sisters, at which point, she and her two boys moved back into J.B.'s apartment. When DYFS learned of that housing arrangement, it grew concerned that more episodes of domestic violence would take place, as J.B. had not complied with all of his referrals for services. Due to her living arrangements with J.B., the two children were again removed from C.L.'s care on July 19, 2006. They were placed in separate foster homes.
On August 7, 2006, C.L. gave birth to her third child, J.J.B. The infant was placed in foster care upon his release from the hospital. C.L. continued to cooperate and participate in DYFS services and completed the twenty-six session course in Alternatives to Domestic Violence in November 2006. Nevertheless, in November 2006, DYFS changed its plan from reunification to adoption. At the time DYFS transferred the case to the adoption unit, C.L. was employed, had secured her own apartment, and continued to be engaged in therapeutic services and one hour weekly visitation with her children.
The oldest child, T.J.B., remained in his first foster placement from July 2006 until June 2007. He was placed in a second foster home from June 2007 until August 2007. The second foster parents requested that T.J.B. be removed due to behavioral problems. In September 2007, T.J.B. was placed in a third foster home where he remained until trial. C.L.'s second son, J.J.B., remained in his first foster placement from July 2006 until August 2007. At the time of trial, J.J.B. was still in his second foster ...