On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Camden County, Docket No. FG-04-118-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges R. B. Coleman, Sabatino and Simonelli.
Plaintiff Division of Youth and Family Services (Division) brought this action, seeking the termination of the parental rights of defendant S.A.R. to her children, Ju.R. (Jesse)*fn1, born December 2, 1999, N.R. (Nick), born on October 16, 2000, M.R. (Mara), born June 25, 2004, and Jo.R. (John), born hours later on June 26, 2004.*fn2 The children's biological father, L.R., is deceased. Defendant also has a fifth child, who is not in her custody and is not involved in this case. Following a non-jury trial, the Family Part judge rendered a written opinion and entered judgment in favor of the Division.
On appeal, defendant contends that the judge erred in finding that the Division proved all four prongs of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1 by clear and convincing evidence and failed to make adequate findings of fact contrary to Rule 1:7-4(a). Defendant also contends that the law guardian had a conflict of interest in representing all four children. We reject these contentions and affirm.
We summarize the facts from the record. On November 8, 1996, defendant was convicted of possession of a controlled dangerous substance and sentenced to two years of probation. On July 24, 1998, defendant was convicted of violating probation and received a two-year extension of probation. On or about June 4, 1999, defendant was again convicted of violating probation and received a one-year extension of probation.
The Division first became involved with defendant in December 1999, after receiving a referral that she was abusing drugs and that she and L.R. were neglecting their newborn child, Jesse. At that time, defendant was still on probation and was engaged in drug treatment. Although finding no neglect, the Division monitored the family and offered services.
On or about August 29, 2000, defendant was again convicted of violating probation, this time for failing to remain drug-free, failing to cooperate in substance abuse treatment and failing to complete Drug Court and aftercare. She was sentenced to a three-year term of imprisonment. Jesse was placed in L.R.'s care, as was Nick, who was born on October 16, 2000. One month later, L.R. was arrested for burglary and theft. Having no one to care for the children, L.R. signed an informed consent to place the children into foster care. The Division returned the children to L.R. in December 2000.
Defendant was released from prison sometime in early 2001, and engaged in drug treatment as part of her parole conditions. However, she again violated parole and was incarcerated. She was released from prison in July 2002, and completed outpatient drug treatment as part of her parole conditions. She also obtained employment.
The Division continued monitoring the family in 2002 and 2003, and provided services, including assistance in purchasing a youth bed for Jesse, bus passes for defendant to attend drug treatment and a referral for rental assistance. The family was stable and the home was neat and clean.
The incident forming the basis of the guardianship action occurred on December 18, 2003. The Division received a referral that a three-year-old boy was found alone in a stroller at a transportation center in Camden. L.R. contacted the police after concluding that Jesse was the boy shown on a television news broadcast about the incident. L.R. reported that defendant had taken Jesse to the hospital at approximately 9:00 p.m. the previous night because the child had a high fever. L.R. assumed that defendant had returned with the child later that night and had left early the next morning for a pre-natal appointment.*fn3
However, L.R. discovered that the hospital had discharged Jesse at 11:45 p.m. on December 18. L.R. had not heard from defendant and believed that she had relapsed.
Defendant was arrested as a result of this incident. She admitted that she took Jesse with her to Camden, where she engaged in prostitution to purchase crack cocaine, which she smoked. Defendant was charged with and convicted of endangering the welfare of a child. She received a seven-year term of imprisonment. The Division obtained custody of Jesse, placed him with L.R. and continued supervising the family.
Defendant was released from prison on June 24, 2004. She entered the Intensive Supervision Program (ISP), which required her to attend drug treatment programs and to "check-in three times a day,... report once per week, maintain a job and participate in any additional requirements [ISP] may present." The twins were born the next day and placed with L.R. The Division permitted defendant to return to the home because L.R. would be the children's primary caretaker, and he agreed not to leave the children alone with defendant.
On November 23, 2004, defendant and the twins were placed in the Seabrook House inpatient drug treatment program (Seabrook), where defendant received court-ordered drug treatment, counseling, and parenting skills classes. Seabrook provided updates on defendant's progress to the Division. Defendant was discharged from Seabrook on July 28, 2005, referred to an outpatient drug treatment program, and directed to attend Narcotics Anonymous (NA). She was also provided a counselor, whom she visited monthly.
Defendant enrolled in an outpatient drug treatment program through Kennedy Hospital. She attended that program regularly, but missed several days due to L.R.'s deteriorating health. The Division continued providing in-home services for the children. In the meantime, Nick began exhibiting behavioral problems. For example, he killed and dismembered a pet iguana, set L.R.'s bed on fire, struck L.R. with a shovel, stabbed L.R. on the eye with a pencil, smashed L.R.'s toe with a hammer and caused Jesse to get stitches.
Nick had a psychological evaluation on April 1, 2005. He was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Adjustment Disorder, Bipolar Disorder and possibly Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Despite treatment, Nick's behavioral problems continued. For example, he killed the family fish by pouring detergent into a make-shift pond and took a knife, heated it on the stove and burned Jesse on his arm. Jesse retaliated by spraying Nick with a fire extinguisher, causing chemical burns on Nick's face.
Jesse also began exhibiting behavioral problems. He treated Nick cruelly and had kicked defendant in the mouth. A September 6, 2005 psychological evaluation revealed that his "behaviors are a result of [defendant's] abuse and neglect, adjustment issues from [defendant's] return to the home and possible separation anxiety and problems with attachment."
Defendant relapsed fifteen days before completing her ISP requirements. As a result, she was incarcerated in November 2005 for violating parole. L.R. agreed not to allow defendant back into the home. He, the Division and ISP implemented a safety action plan for the children. Defendant was released from prison and placed at Epiphany House on January 31, 2006, where she received drug treatment, individual and group counseling, and classes in budgeting, job readiness, computer skills and parenting.
Subsequently, L.R.'s deteriorating health prevented him from properly caring for the children. As a result, on February 10, 2006, the Division obtained custody of all four children. It placed Jesse and the twins in foster homes, and eventually placed Nick in the Bridgeton Hospital Crisis Center for long-term care and treatment. Nick was discharged from Bridgeton on February 27, 2006, and placed at the Cedarbrook Psychiatric
Group Home for long-term intensive therapy and care.
On February 22, 2006, the Division placed the twins with defendant at Epiphany House. Unfortunately, this placement was short-lived. In July 2006, Epiphany House advised defendant that "she was being discharged from the program due to her continued struggle with the responsibility of parenting and recovery treatment." Although defendant was initially permitted to stay until a halfway house became available, due to her "inappropriate interaction with another resident[,]" she was asked to leave "as soon as possible" "in order to keep the rest of the community safe." Epiphany House reported that:
At times [defendant] made progress and appeared to be achieving her treatment goals. However, she was unable to sustain the significant gains she made, especially without constant staff intervention. [Defendant] was placed on three behavioral contracts due to her pattern of isolation and the identified verbal abuse of her children. Although at times [defendant] appeared to be in the preparation phase of the change process, at this time she is assessed as being in contemplation. Although she fully recognizes that she has a drug and alcohol problem, she is not willing or able to implement the coping skills taught to change her behavior.
Epiphany House also reported that "[i]solation, relationships, being overwhelmed, and guilt and shame present as significant relapse factors for [defendant]" and that:
[defendant] struggled with her parenting skills and the responsibility of caring for two children and obtaining addiction treatment. At times she became verbally and physically abusive [to the children] and a complaint was made to the Division... due to concerns reported by other residents.
Epiphany House concluded that defendant was "at high risk for relapse if she does not integrate the coping skills she has learned into daily living." It recommended that defendant enter a halfway house without the children.
On August 3, 2006, the Division obtained custody of the twins. L.R. died on August 17, 2006. Thereafter, defendant was placed at the Apostle's House Emergency Shelter (Apostle's House). As part of her admission, defendant signed contracts agreeing to cooperate with Apostle House's efforts to help her obtain permanent housing and employment and to abide by its rules. While there, defendant received parenting courses. She was also referred to the Exodus Program at St. Michael's Medical Center, Behavioral Health Services (St. Michael's), which she entered on August 14, 2006. At St. Michael's, defendant received group and individual counseling, anger management courses, and education services. She ...