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NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION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 ...