On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Mercer County, FG-11-0056-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 27, 2009
Before Judges Grall, Messano and LeWinn.
L.A. and A.A. appeal separately from orders terminating their respective parental rights to their three children, N.A., Z.A. and J.A. The appeals were consolidated by this court.
The children's Law Guardian and the Division of Youth and Family Services (Division) contend that grounds for termination are established by clear and convincing evidence under each of the four prongs of the best interests standard provided in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a. Review of the record and the arguments presented leads us to conclude that there is no ground on which we may disturb Judge Schlosser's factual findings or legal conclusions. In re Guardianship of J.N.H., 172 N.J. 440, 472 (2002). Accordingly, we affirm.
L.A. came to the attention of the Division in 1995 when she gave birth to her first child, R.M.*fn1 L.A. was twenty-eight years old at the time. R.M. was born prematurely and needed a caregiver capable of monitoring his condition and administering CPR. Voicing "grave concern" about L.A.'s ability to provide that care, hospital staff asked the Division to assess her parental capacity.
The concerns about parental capacity were based on the troubling behavior L.A. exhibited during her pregnancy and her medical history. Although L.A. received pre-natal care, throughout that course of treatment she questioned the doctor's diagnosis and doubted that she would give birth to a child. In addition, L.A.'s mother and aunt, based upon L.A.'s conduct with her family, expected she would need but refuse their help. In L.A.'s view, the strained relationship was the product of their tendency to interfere. As for L.A.'s medical history, she was hospitalized for psychiatric care in 1994. L.A. attributed her psychiatric hospitalization to depression she experienced after her grandmother's death.
Although the hospital staff and the Division did not have the records of L.A.'s 1994 hospitalization at that time, subsequent review disclosed that the precipitating event was an apparent suicide attempt involving ingestion of aspirin. L.A.'s diagnoses were delusional disorder and bipolar manic-depressive disorder. When released from that treatment in 1994, medication and follow-up care were prescribed, but L.A. stopped taking the medicine and did not seek treatment. L.A. also had a prior history of volatility and destructive behavior directed at property of which the Division was unaware when R.M. was born.
Within four days of R.M.'s birth, L.A.'s mother left her job to help L.A. care for R.M. and L.A. accepted that assistance as well as gifts of the furnishings and supplies she would need for the infant. Accordingly, the Division planned a course of short-term supervision. L.A. and her mother were trained to monitor R.M.'s condition and administer CPR; arrangements were made for counseling for L.A. and for a visiting nurse to assist in her home; and L.A. obtained medical coverage for R.M. After the services were in place and a nurse who visited L.A.'s home submitted a positive report, the Division closed the case. L.A. resumed her secretarial work, and her mother cared for R.M.
L.A. met A.A. after R.M. was born. A.A. came to the United States from his home in Egypt on a tourist visa in 1997; their relationship developed while A.A. was staying with a friend in the Trenton area who had an apartment in the same complex as L.A. A.A. also had a son born of his marriage to a woman from Egypt, but his child was in the mother's custody.*fn2
L.A. gave birth to A.A.'s daughter, N.A., in 1998. Again, the hospital staff contacted the Division. This time the concern was with L.A.'s apparent failure to bond with, care for and comfort N.A. A Division caseworker met A.A., L.A., L.A.'s mother and R.M. at the hospital. When asked about her prior psychiatric care in 1994 and her follow-up on recommendations for treatment, L.A. again attributed the hospitalization to depression following her grandmother's death. She admitted that she did not seek treatment after her discharge and had discontinued her medication because she thought it was affecting her ability to see.
The caseworker asked A.A. and L.A. to accept a plan for their family. Although L.A. "appeared to take a long time to take in [the caseworker's] request and understand [the] implications," she agreed that pending a psychological evaluation she would have someone with her and the baby at all times. Prior to the baby's discharge, L.A. was evaluated and "cleared" with no finding of psychosis or depression.
After L.A. and N.A. were discharged, a caseworker visited L.A.'s apartment. The report on that home visit was favorable. A.A. was present, and he explained that although he was working and living in New York, he called L.A. daily and stayed with his family when he could. In the caseworker's view: the apartment was "very clean" and "nicely furnished"; A.A. appeared to be attached to N.A. and have a good relationship with R.M.; and R.M., who sat on L.A.'s lap throughout the visit, appeared to be well-cared for and well-adjusted. The caseworker found L.A.'s affect to be "very slow" but noted that she "seems to know what she is doing."
The Division arranged for a visiting nurse to come to L.A.'s home. Within three weeks of N.A.'s birth, the case was closed. L.A. and A.A.'s second child, Z.A., was born in 1999.
Z.A.'s birth led to a third referral. This time hospital staff relayed information provided by a relative of L.A. who reported that her home was in a "deplorable condition, filthy, smelly [and had] no food or drink." L.A.'s explanation was that they had just purchased and moved to a house in Trenton, her dog had been having accidents and the house would be professionally cleaned. A.A., who was present, advised that he had found work in New Brunswick and was living at home with L.A. and the children. The Division contacted the children's pediatrician and was told that they were receiving appropriate medical care. Concluding that the allegation of neglect was unsubstantiated, the Division referred L.A. to a parenting program, "Parents as Teachers," and closed the file.
A.A. and L.A. married in 2000. In August 2001, a neighbor called the Division and alleged that L.A. was allowing her children to play outside without supervision and that N.A., then about two years old, had nearly missed being hit by a car. According to the neighbor, L.A. was usually outside with the children but just stared into space.
A caseworker met with L.A. and A.A. They confirmed that N.A. had gone into the street after a ball and acknowledged the need to exercise greater care. The caseworker concluded that L.A. appeared to be functioning normally and showed no sign of a "psychiatric problem." In the caseworker's view, the children seemed to be receiving proper care, and the house was messy but not filthy. Deeming it noteworthy ...