On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, Docket No. FG-07-115-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Lisa and Sapp-Peterson.
Defendant D.F. appeals from a June 25, 2008 Family Part order terminating parental rights to her son, D.H.*fn1 We affirm substantially for the reasons stated in Judge Margaret Hayden's comprehensive written opinion dated June 25, 2008, and summarized orally from the bench on June 26, 2008.
On November 7, 2005, the Division of Youth and Family Services (the Division) petitioned the court for and was granted care, custody and supervision over two of D.F.'s children, O.F. and D.H. O.F. was placed with her biological father, T.F., and is not the subject of this appeal. D.H. was placed with his adult sister, L.F., with whom he continued to reside at the time of the guardianship trial. On November 2, 2006, the court, after conducting a permanency hearing, approved the Division's kinship legal guardianship plan, N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15, for D.H. to reside with L.F. Nearly one year later, L.F. expressed the desire to adopt D.H., resulting in an order to show cause and complaint for guardianship being filed by the Division on November 9, 2007.
Trial commenced on May 30, 2008, and spanned three, nonconsecutive days. The Division presented its case through three witnesses, the first being Cleo Crossley, a caseworker who became involved with D.F. in early 2008. She was, however, familiar with the case file. Drs. Alexander Iofin and Mark Singer also testified on behalf of the Division as expert witnesses. Additionally, the Division introduced documentary evidence, most of which the trial court noted "was uncontested at the hearing." Dr. Gerald Figurelli testified as an expert on behalf of D.F.
The record before the court disclosed that D.F. has four children. D.F.S. was born while D.F. was a college student in California. L.F. and O.F. were born during D.F.'s marriage to T.F., which marriage ended in divorce in 1998. D.H., the subject of the guardianship action, was born to D.F. and R.H. on July 9, 2003. D.F. has a history of mental illness and suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. The Division's first involvement with D.F. and her children occurred in 1988 when it received a call from her reporting that her babysitter was on the floor and appeared to be drunk. Thereafter, D.F. reached out to the Division more than one hundred times, leading the Division to become concerned about her mental well-being.
On November 15, 2002, the Division received a call from an individual who expressed concern over D.F.'s mental stability. The caller alleged that D.F. was not taking her medications and that she was accusing her landlord of wiretapping her telephone line and videotaping her apartment. Later, on December 10, 2002, the Division received a referral from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) Crisis Services reporting that D.F. was admitted to the hospital for psychiatric reasons. D.F.'s children, O.F. and L.F., were placed with their biological father, T.F., until D.F. was discharged. Both children received therapeutic services from UMDNJ while their mother was hospitalized.
In 2003, the Division received three referrals about D.F. Two referrals were from O.F.'s therapist, Dr. Lillian McMaster of UMDNJ. Dr. McMaster contacted the Division on March 18, 2003 to report an incident that occurred on the previous day during D.F.'s and O.F.'s therapy session. On that occasion, D.F. stated that there was a conspiracy against her and claimed that the therapy sessions and her personal business were being broadcast throughout the hospital. Dr. McMaster additionally stated that she was concerned that O.F. was influenced by the claims made by her mother that resulted in O.F. suffering from anxiety attacks and regressive behavior such as urinating on herself.
On April 22, 2003, the Division received another referral from Dr. McMaster. Dr. McMaster once again expressed concerns for O.F., as the child had begun to believe her mother when she claimed that their apartment was being gassed and that there were people trying to kill them. Dr. McMaster was concerned that O.F. would be at risk if she continued to be exposed to her mother's illness. She opined that D.F. "interferes with her children's need for therapy."
After D.H.'s delivery, St. Barnabas Hospital contacted the Division to express concern over the release of D.H. to D.F.'s care because of her mental instability. The Division initially placed a hold on D.H.'s discharge to D.F.'s custody but later lifted the hold after the attending psychiatric physician and nurse clinician advised the Division that they could not "speculate on whether or not [D.F.] poses a risk to her newborn child. We can only state that she did not pose any suicidal/homicidal risk while we treated her at UBHC."*fn2 However, they recommended that D.F. take medication for her "persecutory delusions." Additionally, her consulting physician at St. Barnabas concluded that D.F. did not "pose a danger to herself or to others." The Division, however, provided D.F. with a homemaker.
While D.F. initially accepted the services of the homemaker, she wrote a series of letters to the Division between August and December 2003 requesting that her file be closed and transferred to the East Orange District Office, as she would be relocating to that area. On February 26, 2004, the Division sent a letter to D.F. advising her that "[s]ince at this time no need for further services is indicated and you have not requested continued services, we will be terminating our agency's involvement effective Monday, January 26, 2004."
Two months later, however, the Division received two more referrals concerning D.F. The first referral was made on March 4, from the Newark Sheriff's Office. D.F. arrived at the Sheriff's Office and claimed that D.H. was injured "on public transportation." The Division investigated and was concerned about D.F.'s mental condition, although there were no findings of neglect. During the investigation, D.F. stated "that the police bringing her to the DYFS Office was a 'conspiracy.'" At that time, D.F. entered into a case plan with the Division in which she agreed to attend therapy on a regular basis.
The second referral came from the Essex County Prosecutor's Office on March 31, 2004. D.F. was observed to be talking to herself and making unfounded claims that corrupt people were attempting to harm both her and her child. The Division, in a follow-up investigation, learned that D.F. planned to relocate to California. D.F. wrote to the Division at its Bloomfield office on May 18, 2004 complaining about what she characterized as "bogus allegations" of her mental instability. D.F. claimed that these false allegations resulted in her "illegal hospitalization." The Division responded to the correspondence a week later advising D.F. that its case file had previously been closed four months earlier.
The Division contacted California Child Protective Services (CCPS) on June 18, 2004 to inform them it was necessary that they follow up with D.F. The Division also requested that CCPS require D.F. to complete a psychological evaluation and ensure that D.F. attend therapy in California. CCPS briefly took custody of the children on August 3, 2005, and thereafter placed them ...