December 4, 2009
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF C.T.W. AND T.L.O.T., MINORS.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Cumberland County, Docket No. FG-06-21-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 5, 2009
Before Judges Stern, Sabatino, and J. N. Harris.
Defendant A.W.T. appeals the termination of her parental rights to her two youngest children, C.T.W. ("Cara") and T.L.O.T. ("Trevor"), who are now ten and seven years old, respectively.*fn1 On appeal, defendant alleges that the Family Part judge erred in finding that the Division of Youth and Family Services ("the Division" or "DYFS") had demonstrated, by clear and convincing evidence, the four standards necessary for termination, as codified in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a. We affirm.
Defendant, who was born in November 1963, is a forty-six-year-old biological mother of seven children. Her parental rights to her five oldest children were judicially terminated in earlier proceedings and are not the subject of this appeal. The care and custody of her two youngest children, Cara, who was born in September 1999, and Trevor, who was born in July 2002, is the subject of this appeal.
Cara and Trevor are half-siblings, having different biological fathers. H.S. is the biological father of Cara. T.T. is the biological father of Trevor. On October 31, 2007, after failure to appear at multiple hearings despite having notice, both H.S. and T.T. defaulted. Consequently, the Family Part terminated parental rights of both men.*fn2
Cara and Trevor are currently in custody of separate foster families. Although Trevor was removed from his first foster family shortly before trial, soon after trial he was placed with a new foster family, which has reportedly expressed an interest in adopting him.
The Division first became involved with defendant when Cara, the sixth child, was born in September 1999. Both Cara and defendant tested positive for cocaine at Cara's birth. When confronted with these toxicology results, defendant admitted using cocaine. On September 8, 1999, the Division implemented a safety plan with M.S., who is defendant's sister and Cara's aunt, and with whom defendant was residing at the time. That plan required defendant to enter a substance abuse program and to be supervised whenever in contact with Cara.
On October 21, 1999, defendant advised the Division she was drug-free. She indicated that she was H.I.V. positive and had started taking the appropriate medications because she had been experiencing symptoms. She also asked for the Division to arrange for psychological counseling.
Four months later, M.S. informed a Division caseworker that defendant had disappeared for three days "to allegedly smoke crack-cocaine." Thereafter, on July 7, 2000, defendant's paramour T.T. contacted the Division to ask for help to get defendant into drug treatment. A caseworker gave T.T. referral information for both a detoxification program and a rehabilitation program.
On August 29, 2000, the Division filed a complaint in the Family Part in Atlantic County for the protection, care and supervision of Cara, who was then living with defendant and T.T. (the "FN" litigation). Cara's named father H.S. was included in the complaint "for dispositional purposes only, meaning [that] none of the allegations in the complaint pertained to him." H.S.'s whereabouts were unknown to the Division at the time.
On November 18, 2000, the Division received information from the Atlantic City Police Department that defendant had left Cara home alone. At a November 28, 2000 custody hearing, defendant admitted to the court that she had used cocaine the night before. She signed a fifteen-day voluntary placement agreement, placing Cara in M.S.'s care. On February 5, 2001, defendant entered inpatient substance abuse treatment at the Matri-Ark program at Seabrook House.
In June 2001, M.S. reported that she did not wish to continue the safety plan, indicating that defendant and T.T. had engaged in domestic violence in her home. M.S. asked for the Division to remove the child from her residence. The Division subsequently removed Cara from M.S.'s care and placed her in a foster home.
On September 5, 2001, H.S. informed a case worker that if a paternity test confirmed that he was Cara's biological father, he wanted to discuss "giving her up." Thereafter, H.S. failed to attend multiple court-ordered paternity tests, participate in the litigation, request services, or attempt to contact or visit Cara.
The Division offered various services to defendant and H.S. from August 2000 to July 2002, but was unable to achieve successful reunification of Cara with either of her biological parents. As a result, at a permanency hearing on May 28, 2002, the court approved the Division's prospective plan for the termination of all parental rights, followed by adoption of Cara.
Meanwhile, on July 20, 2002, defendant gave birth to her seventh child, Trevor. His name was added to the ongoing FN litigation with the Division. As we have noted, T.T. is Trevor's biological father.
On August 20, 2002, the Division filed a guardianship complaint (the "FG" litigation) in the Family Part in Cumberland County, seeking to terminate defendant's and H.S.'s parental rights as to Cara. Thereafter, on October 15, 2002, the court in the FN litigation ordered the Division to maintain care, custody, and supervision of both Cara and Trevor. By that time, defendant had reentered the inpatient Seabrook House program, and had made good progress in treatment. The court ordered Trevor to reside at Seabrook House with defendant subject to the Division's consent, which was granted.
On January 15, 2003, defendant completed treatment at Seabrook House. However, at a hearing on February 4, 2003, she admitted using cocaine while pregnant, and she stipulated to a finding of abuse and neglect based on that admission. The court ordered defendant to have no contact with T.T. at that point and suspended his visits with Trevor.
On April 29, 2003, the Division's complaint for guardianship of Cara in Atlantic County was dismissed. Venue was transferred to the Family Part in Cumberland County, and Cara was added to the complaint for care and supervision under the FN docket pending there regarding Trevor. The judge in Cumberland County ordered defendant to submit to random drug screenings and to complete a "twelve-step" substance abuse rehabilitation program.
On July 27, 2005, the Division filed an Order to Show Cause in the Cumberland FN litigation, after investigating allegations that defendant and T.T. had smoked crack cocaine, with Trevor being present in their house. During its investigation, the Division found that defendant had tested positive for cocaine. The Division also learned T.T. had been incarcerated on July 17. Based upon these adverse developments, a DYFS caseworker implemented a short-term safety plan, requiring defendant and her children to live at M.S.'s home to provide a drug-free caretaker. The Division contacted H.S.'s mother--Cara's paternal grandmother--to seek out a possible placement, but she was not interested. On July 25, the Division conducted a "Dodd removal"*fn3 of the children, since defendant did not have a drug-free caretaker for them.
On August 1, 2005, defendant told a DYFS caseworker she wished to get her children back in her care. The Division offered services to both defendant and T.T., including psychological evaluations, substance abuse treatment, parenting classes, visitation, and transportation. On the return date of the Division's Order to Show Cause, August 11, 2005, the court transferred custody of both children to the Division, ordered defendant to submit to a psychological evaluation and random drug screenings, and granted her supervised visitation.
On September 12, 2005, a caseworker reported that defendant continued to test positive for drugs, and that she had not attended her substance abuse program. In particular, defendant had tested positive for cocaine on three occasions in August 2005, and once for benzodiazepines. On October 31, 2005, SODAT of New Jersey, an addiction treatment organization, reported to the Division that defendant had missed five counseling sessions and had tested positive for cocaine three times that month.
At a fact-finding hearing on November 1, 2005, defendant stipulated to her cocaine use. The court found, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the children had been abused or neglected. It ordered defendant to complete all recommended services and T.T. to attend a psychological evaluation.
On February 10, 2006, defendant informed a caseworker that she had no stable place to live; that she was temporarily living with her sister, M.S., and sometimes with friends. Defendant still did not have stable housing arrangements through the time of the eventual guardianship trial.
On July 12, 2006, the court entered a ninety-day extension of the permanency hearing, in order to give defendant the opportunity to take advantage of services and obtain safe and adequate housing. Nevertheless, on July 18, 2006, defendant cancelled a therapy appointment, later claiming that she did not know the session was mandatory. On August 18, 2006, the Division learned that defendant still did not have stable housing and had not yet participated in the offered substance abuse services. On August 25 and September 1, 2006, defendant failed to attend her scheduled visitation at the Division office, despite the fact that the Division was providing her with bus tickets to enable her attendance.
On August 28, 2006, the Millville Police Department reported to the Division that T.T. had physically assaulted defendant, and charged him with simple assault. On August 30, 2006, Cara, who was then nearly seven years old, told a caseworker she did not want to live with defendant, and that she wanted to be adopted by her foster mother or her foster mother's sister. Cara asked the caseworker to inform the court of her wishes.
Throughout August and September 2006, defendant and T.T. both continued to test positive for cocaine. They did not complete any Division-offered services. They had no stable housing, and had been residing in homeless shelters.
At a permanency hearing on September 19, 2006, the court approved a plan for the termination of defendant's and T.T.'s parental rights, indicating in its order that they had not complied with court-ordered services, that "time [had] pas[sed] on [the] extension [of time to comply]" and that termination of parental rights was in the best interest of the children. The court also found that, although "[t]he Division [had] provided reasonable efforts" toward reunification, defendant and T.T. had not availed themselves of those efforts.
On October 4, 2006, the Division transferred the case involving Cara and Trevor to its adoption resource unit. On November 17, 2006, the Division terminated the FN litigation and filed an Order to Show Cause and a guardianship complaint in Cumberland County under an FG docket. At this time, the children were living in a foster home and were under the care, custody and supervision of the Division.
On January 9, 2007, the court ordered defendant and T.T. to attend scheduled psychological and bonding evaluations, outpatient and inpatient substance abuse programs, and parenting classes and counseling. The court further directed defendant and T.T. to submit to random drug screenings. The court allowed defendant visits with the children so long as she confirmed the appointments twenty-four hours in advance.
Defendant tested positive for marijuana on January 10, March 16, and October 11, 2007, after submitting to the random drug screenings.
On March 16, 2007, the court again ordered defendant and T.T. to attend scheduled psychological and bonding evaluations and outpatient substance abuse treatment, and also to submit to random drug screenings. The Division reported at this time that defendant had not appeared for a scheduled child welfare mediation because she was then incarcerated in the County jail. The mediation was rescheduled.
On July 26, 2007, the court entered a permanency order approving the plan of termination of parental rights followed by adoption because defendant and T.T. were not able to provide a safe and stable home despite reasonable efforts by the Division to reunify the family.
On September 19, 2007, the court entered an order scheduling defendant and T.T. for psychological and bonding evaluations, with the Division providing bus transportation for this purpose. On that date, and again on October 11, 2007, the court ordered the Division to maintain care, custody, and supervision of Cara and Trevor. The court also scheduled a guardianship trial to consider the termination of the parties' parental rights.
As H.S. and T.T.--who had both been noticed as to the start of the trial--both did not appear, the court began a default hearing on the termination of their rights to Cara and Trevor respectively. During this hearing, Amy Horton, a DYFS caseworker assigned to the family on June 25, 2007, testified that T.T. had stopped visiting the children after an incident in September 2007 in which he and defendant began fighting at the Division office before a scheduled visit. T.T., who allegedly had a hammer in his possession at the time, left before the visit began. The Division reported the incident to the police.
Horton testified that T.T. subsequently sent a letter to the Division, stating that he wished to give temporary custody of Trevor to defendant's niece, T.B., whom the Division had previously ruled out as a possible caretaker. According to Horton, T.B. resided in Philadelphia and the initial background checks on her performed in New Jersey had not resulted in any negative information. Horton perceived that T.B. handled Cara and Trevor well and testified that T.B. had contested the Division's denial of placement of the children with her.
Horton further testified that Trevor had developmental problems, including speech delays and possible fetal alcohol syndrome, and that his H.I.V. status was unknown.
The trial court found Horton's testimony credible. At the close of the hearing, the court found that the Division had met its burden of proof in regard to the four-prong statutory test. As a result, the parental rights of both biological fathers were terminated.
On October 31, 2007, the first day of the guardianship trial, defendant stated on the record that she agreed to a surrender of parental rights in favor of the children's caretakers, only if allowed to undergo pre-surrender counseling. The court scheduled three counseling sessions for defendant and ordered that if she failed to appear for counseling or at the next hearing, her surrender would be accepted and treated as final.
On November 30, 2007, defendant failed to appear in court. Her attorney reported he could not locate her, as she was not at home or in the hospital. Since defendant failed to appear without explanation, the court entered a judgment accepting defendant's previously-entered surrender of parental rights, paving the way for the current caretakers to adopt the children. The court ordered the Division to schedule one last visit between defendant and the children. The court also entered a guardianship judgment, providing that any party who wished to vacate the judgment could apply to do so as provided by the Court Rules.
Defendant filed a motion to vacate that judgment. The court scheduled a hearing on the motion to vacate for March 20, 2008. When defendant failed to appear, the court ordered that if she did not appear at the next rescheduled hearing, it would dismiss her application to vacate. The matter was again rescheduled, eventually being heard on April 17, 2008. Defendant appeared on that date and the court granted defendant's application, vacating the final judgment. The court reopened the FG case as to the termination of defendant's parental rights, and ordered that if defendant failed to appear at any future hearing without good cause, it would enter a default against her.
On May 15, 2008, the court held a status hearing and ordered defendant to attend new psychological and bonding evaluations, submit to random drug screenings, provide the names of her healthcare providers, and release her medical records. All parties were allowed to present additional witnesses at the scheduled trial, given the opportunity to obtain experts, have defendant re-evaluated, and conduct additional bonding evaluations.
The court conducted the guardianship trial over three intermittent days in July and August 2008. The Division's witnesses were Dr. Rhona Brown, Ph.D., an expert in psychology, and Christy Lane, a Division caseworker. Defendant presented two witnesses: Robert Turgione, an investigator for the Office of the Public Defender, and T.B., defendant's niece.
Dr. Brown conducted evaluations of defendant on March 23, 2007 and June 4, 2008. The evaluations consisted of a clinical interview, a mental status examination, and psychological testing. Dr. Brown concluded that defendant suffered from bipolar disorder and narcissistic personality disorder with paranoid traits. In her report, Dr. Brown noted that defendant had a history of abusing alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. She acknowledged that defendant suffered from arthritis, H.I.V., and high blood pressure and was residing in a homeless shelter. Dr. Brown also considered that defendant had been unemployed for the past two years, had problems in her relationship--including domestic violence--and had lost her parental rights to her first five children. She further noted that defendant admitted having significant difficulties remaining free from substance abuse.
Based on her observations, Dr. Brown characterized defendant as "a very ill woman."
Dr. Brown related that, during her initial psychological evaluation, on March 23, 2007, defendant fell asleep two or three times, couldn't stay still, paced the room, and ran out of the room multiple times. One month later, at a bonding evaluation that was supposed to last two hours, defendant tried to leave after about one hour, allegedly stating to Dr. Brown, "[o]kay, we're done, it's time to go." When Trevor began banging his head against the wall during the same bonding evaluation, defendant yelled at him to stop, and told him "you're going to hurt your brain," but she did not walk over to him or attempt to help him. Dr. Brown described defendant's interaction with Trevor as "a sad thing to see."
Dr. Brown acknowledged that, during the bonding evaluation, Trevor did state a desire to live with his mother. However, Dr. Brown found it sigificant that defendant was unable to observe the chaotic atmosphere of the evaluation, because of her self-deluding personality. Dr. Brown observed that defendant was "not really engaged with [the children]... [or] reading their social cues."
Dr. Brown opined that although terminating defendant's parental rights might cause the children some harm, it would be less than the harm that would result from another failed attempt at reunification. Therefore, Dr. Brown concluded that contact with defendant would be harmful and disruptive to the children's emotional stability and development. Having found defendant unable to provide minimal safe parenting to her children, Dr. Brown recommended the termination of her parental rights.
During the trial, the court held a hearing on defendant's request for interim visitation with the children. At this hearing, the Law Guardian informed the court that Trevor's foster parents had allegedly abused him. During an examination, a doctor had found belt marks on his thigh. According to the Law Guardian, Trevor told the doctor that "his foster parents beat him when he wet the bed." Trevor was removed from the home, and was placed in a different foster home.
The Law Guardian opposed defendant's request for visitation. She relied upon the opinion of a licensed professional counselor, Scott R. Schafer, D. Min., LPC, LMFT, who had observed defendant interact with the children on two occasions in 2007 and had met with her individually a number of times about two years earlier. At the visitation hearing, Dr. Schafer testified by telephone. He stated that, during the interactions, he observed defendant gave Cara and Trevor the impression "that it was very likely that they would be returning, and to plan towards that." His opinion was that defendant should not visit with the children "until there was a firmer definition of the direction in which the case is to be handled and managed."
Dr. Schafer also testified that the children could suffer harm "if there's a misrepresentation of what is going to occur in the future, in the sense that the children, perhaps her son or her daughter would be anxious to return to her, and there's no guarantee that will take place." Having considered Dr. Schafer's recommendations, the court granted defendant supervised visitation pending trial, and specifically ordered her not to discuss the case with Cara and Trevor, so as to "provide the children with as much stability as possible."
On August 14, 2008, the second scheduled day of trial, Christy Lane, a caseworker assigned to the case in June 2008, testified that defendant had complied with some but not all of the recommended services. She testified that defendant was compliant with the outpatient substance abuse treatment program in which she was participating during trial, and that the Division's records showed defendant had provided negative drug screens for six months.
However, Lane also emphasized that defendant had completed drug treatment and after-care programs previously, but still had multiple ensuing drug relapses, despite complying with those programs. Lane testified that she spoke to Cara about returning to her mother, and Cara responded by asking why she had to choose between her mother and her foster family. According to Lane, Cara expressed interest in seeing Trevor, but she did not indicate that she wanted to leave her current foster home.
The defense case was presented on August 14, 2008 and consisted of testimony from Turgione and T.B. Defendant did not testify herself.
Turgione testified that on February 11, 2008, at the request of defendant's counsel, he conducted a scheduled home evaluation and criminal background checks, of T.B. and her friend and roommate, A.D. T.B. had indicated to the Division that she wanted to be considered for placement of the children. T.B.'s background check revealed no criminal history, but A.D.'s revealed a Pennsylvania Public Assistance Act violation in 1992. Turgione testified that T.B. had told him that A.D. was on disability while T.B. worked as a security guard. Turgione confirmed T.B.'s employment by calling the company, which confirmed that T.B. had worked there since July 2007.
Turgione further testified that his evaluation of T.B.'s home showed that it was adequately furnished, had working appliances, and did not reveal any issues regarding the potential placement of the children, except that it "was cluttered with clothes and piles of clothes and articles." He observed that the residence, a row home in Philadelphia, had a living room, dining room and kitchen on the first floor with three bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor. There was food in the home and the temperature was appropriate. Turgione also testified that, when he visited for the evaluation, T.B. and A.D. had six guests in their home, including children and at least one other adult, who were staying with them allegedly for one or two days.
On cross-examination, Turgione acknowledged that his background checks on T.B. and A.D. included only Philadelphia County records, and not any federal or state records. He also conceded that he had visited their home once and did not ask for details as to the company staying with them. In addition, Turgione conceded he was unaware of the requirements that the Division uses to review potential placements for children. He did not ask T.B. and A.D. about their methods of discipline or their ability to care for a child with special needs.
T.B. then took the stand and confirmed her interest in having Cara and Trevor placed with her. However, she testified that A.D. "might not want to,... because [the Division] sent us letters saying that we would never get them." T.B. stated that she felt sufficiently comfortable and financially responsible to care for the children, and that she had filed for custody that same day in her name only. She stated that she had guests at her home during Turgione's evaluation because there was a block party on her street that week, and "a couple people from different spots had stayed there with us that day," which was why there were "clothes in different rooms like that."
T.B. claimed to regularly pay her bills, that her appliances worked and that her services never been shut off. She asserted that she planned to use a method of discipline in which she would "walk and talk" with the children, "teaching them, hold their hand, and tell them what's right and wrong." She contended she has never had a drug problem, that she speaks with defendant on the phone about "every other day" and is willing to adopt one or both of the children and commit to caring for them until they are eighteen years old.
On cross-examination, T.B. admitted that she has seen Cara and Trevor about three times since they have been in the Division's custody, each time with defendant during a scheduled visit. The last time T.B. saw them was four or five months prior to trial. She stated that she has no children, but has been involved with caring for others' children, ranging from infants to five years old. She discussed her filing for custody with A.D., but "forgot what she said" about it. She acknowledged that A.D. was reluctant to sign for placement of the children at the home.
The parties all provided their summations on August 15, 2008, the third and final day of trial. After summations, the court indicated that it would consider the evidence presented and issue an opinion forthwith. On October 29, 2008, the trial judge announced from the bench his determination that the Division had proven by clear and convincing evidence all of the criteria required for the termination of defendant's parental rights. Subsequently, the judge issued a fifty-seven-page written opinion on November 28, 2008, detailing his findings of fact and conclusions of law. A corresponding final judgment of termination was entered on December 11, 2008.
In his written opinion, the judge explained at length why all four statutory criteria for termination were met in this case. The judge found the testimony of the Division's witnesses, Dr. Brown and Lane, to be particularly credible. The court found that Turgione, although frank in his testimony, ultimately was not helpful to the defendant's case, given the limited extent of his investigation of T.B.'s residence in Philadelphia and of the backgrounds of T.B. and her roommate. The judge did not comment expressly about T.B.'s credibility, although he did recognize T.B.'s stated willingness to serve as a caretaker. The judge further noted the reluctance of T.B.'s roommate, A.D., to sign the consent form for placement of the children, although he also acknowledged that T.B. had testified that A.D. was now "behind her 100%" in support of such a placement.
In the course of his analysis, the judge underscored defendant's "long history of substance abuse as well as [her] profound mental health problems[.]" These factors, according to the judge "have and will continue to endanger the health and development of Cara and Trevor." The judge was satisfied that the Division had made reasonable efforts to attempt to provide both defendant and T.T. "with a variety of services, which have proven unsuccessful." The judge concluded that the Division had adequately explored alternatives to termination, including potential placement with T.B., but that such alternatives were inferior to termination and future adoption by other caretakers.
Lastly, the judge found that the children's best interests would be advanced by termination, and that termination would help them achieve permanence. The judge substantially relied on Dr. Brown's expert testimony, which was uncontradicted by a defense expert, concluding that termination would not cause more harm than good. In that vein, the judge acknowledged Dr. Brown's observation that the children had exhibited some bonding with their mother and that permanent separation from their mother would be difficult. Nevertheless, the judge considered "the minimal harm of separation is outweighed by serious future harm if [the children were] reunified with defendant." On that point, the judge emphasized that Cara and Trevor "have been involved in the disruptive process of constant litigation and moving from one foster home to another for quite some time and are in need of stability."
Defendant now appeals, contending that the four elements under the statute were not proven by clear and convincing evidence. Defendant maintains that the harm experienced by her children was "an indirect result of [her] treatable mental illness and not by her intentional infliction of any direct harm." She emphasizes that at the time of trial in 2008 she had been drug-free and successfully participating in a drug rehabilitation program for six months, which she contends demonstrated her ability and willingness to resume parenting. Defendant also faults the Division for making inadequate efforts to provide her with services, and for not fairly considering alternatives to termination, such as placing the children with T.B.
The substantive requirements for termination of parental rights in a Title 30 case are well established. The Division has the burden of establishing, by clear and convincing proof, that:
(1) The child's safety, health or development has been or will continue to be endangered by the parental relationship;
(2) The parent is unwilling or unable to eliminate the harm facing the child or is unable or unwilling to provide a safe and stable home for the child and the delay of permanent placement will add to the harm. Such harm may include evidence that separating the child from his resource family parents would cause serious and enduring emotional or psychological harm to the child;
(3) [DYFS] has made reasonable efforts to provide services to help the parent correct the circumstances which led to the child's placement outside the home and the court has considered alternatives to termination of parental rights; and
(4) Termination of parental rights will not do more harm than good. [N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a. See also N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. A.W., 103 N.J. 591, 604-11 (1986) (reciting the four controlling standards later codified in Title 30).]
In applying these criteria, courts must be sensitive to the fact that the termination of a parent's right to raise his or her child is a matter of constitutional magnitude. See In re Guardianship of K.H.O., 161 N.J. 337, 346 (1999); see also In re Guardianship of J.C., 129 N.J. 1, 9-10 (1992).
"Review of a trial court's termination of parental rights is limited." N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. M.M., 189 N.J. 261, 278 (2007). See also N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. E.P., 196 N.J. 88, 104 (2008) (noting that this court shall give deference to the factual findings of the trial court because it had the opportunity to "make first-hand credibility judgments" and it also had a "'feel of the case' that can never be realized by a review of the cold record." (quoting M.M., supra, 189 N.J. at 293)). "We will not disturb the [Family Part's] decision to terminate parental rights when there is substantial credible evidence in the record to support the court's findings." Ibid. (citing In re Guardianship of J.N.H., 172 N.J. 440, 472 (2002)). "Only when the trial court's conclusions are so 'clearly mistaken' or 'wide of the mark' should an appellate court intervene and make its own findings to ensure that there is not a denial of justice." Ibid. (quoting New Jersey Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. G.L., 191 N.J. 596, 605 (2007)). Moreover, we ordinarily do not second-guess the factual findings of judges, particularly judges in the Family Part, given that court's expertise in matters that involve domestic relations and the welfare of children. Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998).
Having fully considered the record as a whole through the prism of our limited scope of review, we are satisfied that the Division demonstrated all four necessary elements for terminating defendant's parental rights. We affirm the final judgment entered by the court, substantially for the reasons articulated by Judge Julio L. Mendez in his comprehensive written opinion.
Unfortunately, defendant has a long history of drug abuse and psychological problems, which have prevented her from functioning as a capable parent and which led to the removal of her five older children. Defendant's poor prognosis for a durable recovery and the attainment of a stable life is amply reflected in Dr. Brown's unrebutted testimony. Although we appreciate that defendant had attained a short-term period of sobriety prior to trial, the judge reasonably concluded that her efforts were, in essence, too little and too late. We also concur with the trial judge that the Division acted reasonably in endeavoring to provide defendant and her paramour with services, and that defendant failed on numerous occasions to follow through on taking full advantage of those services. Lastly, the trial judge had ample grounds to favor the plan for permanency recommended by the Division over the speculative possibility that T.B. would be suitable long-term solution, particularly given the initial reluctance of T.B.'s roommate to bring the children into her residence and the concerns about the premises that were brought out on the cross-examination of Turgione.