On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Camden County, Docket No. FG-04-0144-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 15, 2009
Before Judges Stern, Lyons, and J.N. Harris.
In these consolidated appeals, a mother - Rebecca - and father - Richard - appeal from an order entered on January 21, 2009, terminating their parental rights.*fn1 The three children involved are Ayana, five years-old; Richard, Jr., three years-old; and Tiffani, one year-old.*fn2 The law guardian for the children supports the termination of Rebecca's and Richard's parental rights. We affirm.
Rebecca, born in 1975, is the mother of ten children, the eldest delivered in 1991. Richard, born in 1973, is the father of five of Rebecca's offspring, including Ayana, Richard, Jr., and Tiffani, who are the subject of this appeal. The other two children of the union of Rebecca and Richard - Tia, seven years-old and Kia, six years-old - were the subjects of a previous guardianship judgment of the Family Part. On April 13, 2004, the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or Division) was awarded guardianship of Tia and Kia by the Family Part, terminating Rebecca's and Richard's parental rights. There was no appeal filed by either parent from this 2004 judgment.
The children of Rebecca initially came under the scrutiny of DYFS in February 1998, when allegations of abuse and neglect surfaced regarding the family's living conditions. These initial allegations were investigated, but deemed unsubstantiated. Subsequently, in November 2001, Rebecca gave birth to Tia. When DYFS learned that both mother and daughter tested positive for cocaine at birth, the Family Part granted the Division custody, care, and supervision of Rebecca's then six children: Talisa (born in December 1991), Odell (born in October 1993), Wanda (born in October 1994), Damon (born in August 1996), Tobe (born in May 1999), and Tia (born in November 2001). In April 2002, the Family Part entered a stipulated finding of abuse and neglect.
While the abuse and neglect litigation was proceeding against Rebecca, her children remained in foster homes under the supervision of DYFS. The Division provided multiple and recurring services to Rebecca, including psychological evaluations, workshops in parenting skills, and substance abuse therapy. In 2003, Rebecca's children were temporarily returned to her care. They were again removed from her home and placed under the stewardship of DYFS because both Rebecca and Richard were found again to have failed to provide adequate housing and medical care and demonstrated a continued inability to adequately care for their children. Later, the Family Part terminated the neglect and abuse proceedings when DYFS instead instituted a complaint for guardianship relating to Tia and Kia (who was born in October 2002).
In September 2003, Rebecca gave birth prematurely to Ayana using an alias in an effort to hide the birth from DYFS. In August 2004, after months of continuous efforts to reunite the family, the court conditionally returned Rebecca's children to defendants' care. DYFS again provided the parents with supervision and a wealth of services to help with economic, psychological, and parenting issues. Nevertheless, additional complaints and disquieting allegations of abuse and neglect regarding the children continued to emerge.
In May 2006, DYFS stepped up another investigation based upon these continuing allegations but was unable to verify such claims. In March 2007, DYFS received information that Rebecca's child Tobe, then seven years-old, had a scratch on her cheek and was acting noticeably different at school, exhibiting an uncharacteristic "sad demeanor." During the ensuing investigation, DYFS discovered that both Rebecca and Richard had been arrested - Rebecca in September 2006, and then Rebecca and Richard in February 2007 - for child endangerment and possession of controlled dangerous substances (cocaine and heroin) with the intent to distribute. These arrests eventually produced indictments against Rebecca and Richard. At the time of the arrests, some of their children were present in the home, which formed the basis of the endangerment charges involving Richard, Jr., Ayana, and Wanda. After the second arrest, six children were sent to the homes of different relatives. Tobe and Damon were placed in the care of a maternal aunt; Wanda, Odell, Ayana, and Richard, Jr. were dispatched to live in the home of a paternal aunt.
DYFS conducted an investigation into the living conditions of the displaced children. Both of these placements were deemed unfit by DYFS, as the homes were overcrowded, unclean, and lacked adequate bedding for the children to sleep. Furthermore, the paternal aunt had a prior negative DYFS history, and was therefore considered unsuitable to care for the children. DYFS ultimately filed for and obtained custody of these six children on March 5, 2007, because the homes they were living in ...