On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Bergen County, Docket No. FG-02-77-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted August 12, 2009
Before Judges Rodríguez and LeWinn.
Defendant E.C. is the birth father of C.C., born January 23, 2002; he appeals from the October 20, 2008 order of the Family Part terminating his parental rights to the child and awarding guardianship to the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS). For the reasons that follow, we affirm
The pertinent factual background may be summarized as follows. C.C.'s birth mother, K.C., died of breast cancer in April 2006. E.C. is also the natural father of F.C., a teenage boy who is not a subject of these proceedings.
E.C. and K.C. first became involved with DYFS in 2001. In March of that year, DYFS received a referral that the parents maintained a "filthy" residence and used cocaine and other drugs; E.C. refused to submit to a drug screen at that time. In July 2003, DYFS responded to a referral alleging domestic violence between E.C. and K.C., and received additional information about both parties' drug abuse. E.C. signed an in-home case plan to comply with a substance abuse evaluation on July 29, 2003, and DYFS closed its case in November 2003.
The triggering event that led to the removal of C.C. from E.C.'s custody occurred on October 15, 2006. On that date, E.C. drove his car while under the influence of an overdose of prescription pain medication, and hit two parked cars and a pedestrian in a parking lot; C.C. was a passenger in E.C.'s car at the time. DYFS received a referral from the police and, after E.C. was arrested, DYFS placed C.C. with her paternal uncle.
Police officers evaluated E.C., who admitted to having taken three times the prescribed dosage of his pain medication that day. An officer determined that E.C. was under the influence of a narcotic analgesic and was unable to operate a motor vehicle safely; E.C. was transferred to Bergen Regional Medical Canter (BRMC) for treatment.
C.C. went through several placements and, on December 1, 2006, was placed with A.R., a family friend of E.C.'s who had known C.C. since toddlerhood, had babysat for her and whose teenage son was a friend of F.C. C.C. has been in A.R.'s custody since that date.
The record documents E.C.'s chronic involvement with drugs and alcohol. DYFS made numerous referrals to treatment programs, some of which E.C. attended but most of which he either attended sporadically or refused to attend, claiming that his work schedule prevented him from attending. E.C.'s mother, R.B., informed DYFS that E.C. had started experimenting with drugs when he was thirteen years old.
In a December 2006 substance abuse evaluation, E.C. acknowledged that he had abused alcohol and painkillers; he also stated that he was unemployed and that his main source of income was survivor benefits and food stamps. The evaluator, Stephen Thomas, recommended that E.C. continue the therapy he had started at Vantage Health Systems and referred him for a more extensive substance abuse evaluation.
At a January 4, 2007 court hearing, E.C. submitted to a urine screen and tested positive for cocaine. On January 18, 2007, at Thomas' recommendation, E.C. entered an outpatient program for treatment of cocaine dependence at St. Mary's Hospital.
Dr. Michael J. Fiore, Ph.D., of the Center for Evaluation and Counseling (CEC) conducted a psychological evaluation of E.C. on April 16, 2007. Based upon his interview with E.C., as well as the psychological tests he administered, Dr. Fiore opined that E.C. "tend[ed] to be an immature, self-dramatizing, and attention-seeking adult with dependent and narcissistic personality traits." The doctor also opined that E.C. is "emotionally needy and focused on meeting his needs at the expense of his responsibilities and the needs of others."
Dr. Fiore further noted that E.C. "has a history of drug addiction.... [H]e exhibits a highly addictive, dysfunctional pattern.... Given his tendencies to be reactive to the stress engendered by responsibilities, [E.C.] is at risk for relapse."
Dr. Fiore concluded that E.C. "is not yet sufficiently stable to assume full time parenting responsibilities for, or extended unsupervised visitation with[,] [C.C.]. [He] is in need of continued recovery services, as well as psychotherapy with an emphasis on managing stressors and emotions without utilizing chemicals." The doctor recommended that E.C. have "brief (two hours per week) unsupervised visits" with C.C., and gradually increase his visitation as he made "therapeutic progress...." Any increase would be "contingent on [E.C.]'s continued abstinence and psychotherapeutic progress." Dr. Fiore recommended that reunification "should not occur at the expense of the loss of another mother figure in [C.C.'s] life. Ongoing and frequent contact with her current foster mother [wa]s strongly recommended."
E.C. engaged in therapy and some substance abuse counseling; his parenting time with C.C. was increased accordingly. However, on June 27, 2007, E.C. tested positive for cocaine; his unsupervised visits with C.C. were suspended, and future visits were held at DYFS' office.
Thomas evaluated E.C. on July 23, 2007, and referred him to BRMC's intensive outpatient program. On September 12, 2007, the program director advised DYFS caseworker Raquel Rodgers that E.C. stated he "could not commit" to the schedule of three to four meetings per week required by the program. Rodgers thereupon referred E.C. to the Addiction Recovery Program (ARP). However, E.C. informed Thomas that he could only attend ARP one night a week; Thomas stated that it would be "unrealistic to recommend that he undergo treatment for one night a ...