December 4, 2009
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF A.R.C., A MINOR.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Hudson County, Docket No. FG-09-97-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 28, 2009
Before Judges Graves, Sabatino and Lyons.
After a guardianship trial, the Family Part terminated the parental rights of defendant G.R., the biological mother of A.R.C. Defendant now appeals, and we affirm.
The following facts in the record are pertinent to our consideration of the issues raised on appeal.
A.R.C. was born addicted to methadone in April 2005, while his mother, defendant G.R., a forty-seven-year-old female, was incarcerated at South Kearny Correctional Facility. The baby was born at forty weeks gestation, weighing six pounds, eleven ounces. A Jersey City Medical Center staff member called the Division of Youth and Family Services ("DYFS" or the "Division") on April 18, 2005, to report that A.R.C. had tested positive for methadone at birth. Defendant disputes whether A.R.C. was suffering any withdrawal symptoms, although a DYFS caseworker testified that the infant was hospitalized for several weeks after his birth due to addiction.
Defendant has a history of substance abuse that spans more than twenty-six years. She had been incarcerated since February 2005, for a violation of probation after testing positive for heroin.
Defendant is a widow. She is a graduate of St. Peter's College, where she met her first husband while studying Psychology and Urban Studies.
Defendant has had a traumatic life. Her father died in an automobile accident while driving her mother to the hospital for her birth. This tragic incident caused defendant's mother to be depressed and angry for many years, and defendant felt blamed for her father's death. Defendant also reported that she had been raped as a young woman by a group of men coming home from work one night. These events, coupled with defendant's financial difficulties, evidently contributed to her use of illegal substances, including marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. In addition, defendant has several arrests and convictions for solicitation arising out of her drug dependency.
While she was an inmate at the Hudson County Jail in the spring of 2005, defendant enrolled in a methadone program. She also was added to a wait list for the Straight and Narrow program. Defendant had been previously enrolled in MASSH (Jersey City Medical Center's detoxification program) and St. Lucy's shelter drug program, but did not complete either of those courses of treatment.
Defendant admitted to using drugs during three of her four pregnancies. All three children, including A.R.C., tested positive for controlled dangerous substances at birth. Between 1993 and 1998, DYFS received nine referrals reporting abuse or neglect of defendant's older children, only two of which were substantiated.
On April 26, 2005, the Division filed an Order to Show Cause and Verified Complaint seeking the custody of A.R.C. The application was filed against defendant and N.C., who has been defendant's paramour for approximately seventeen years and was identified as the potential father of the child. The Division alleged that both parents had failed to exercise a minimum degree of care toward A.R.C. That same day, the Family Part ordered the transfer of legal custody of A.R.C. from defendant to the Division. The court also transferred physical custody of A.R.C. to the Division while the boy remained hospitalized. The court further ordered the Division to arrange a psychological evaluation of N.C., and to consider him as a potential placement resource for the child.
Gerard A. Figurelli, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, examined N.C. at the Division's request on May 16, 2005. N.C. told Dr. Figurelli that he has cared for N.C., Jr., (his confirmed biological child with defendant) as well as defendant's older daughter, A.R. (then age seventeen) and her son, L.R. (then age fourteen), both from a different biological father.
N.C. reported to Dr. Figurelli that he had recently worked as a manual laborer and also had previously been self-employed as a contractor. He stated that he was receiving Medicaid and food stamps, as well as Social Security benefits on behalf of defendant's children. N.C. admitted to Dr. Figurelli that he had used drugs approximately ten years earlier and that he currently drank alcohol. These various factors led Dr. Figurelli to conclude that N.C. was not suitable to provide primary caretaking responsibility of the newborn boy.
Significantly, N.C. tested positive for marijuana in a drug test conducted the same day of his psychological evaluation with Dr. Figurelli. N.C. denied the validity of that drug screen. He also claimed that he did not have time to enter a drug treatment program due to his work schedule.
Dr. Figurelli characterized the relationship between N.C. and defendant as "enabling." He suggested that N.C. would benefit from counseling. Even so, a DYFS investigation of N.C.'s home did indicate that N.C. appeared to be taking "good care" of the three older children.
On May 11, 2005, defendant began in-patient treatment at the Straight and Narrow program. On May 20, 2005, the return date of the initial Order to Show Cause, the Family Part transferred physical custody of A.R.C. back to defendant. Thereafter, the child stayed with defendant in a residential substance abuse program. Defendant was described by the staff at that program as an active participant in therapy and attentive to her child's needs. However, the staff also observed her tendencies to become defensive during group therapy.
On August 16, 2005, defendant and N.C. appeared with counsel in the Family Part in the child neglect ("FN") litigation (Docket No. FN-09-418-05). On that day, the court dismissed N.C. from the case, based on paternity test results revealing that he was not A.R.C.'s biological father. N.C. nonetheless requested to be listed on A.R.C.'s birth certificate as the child's father, and the certificate was so amended. N.C.*fn1 repeatedly sought custody of A.R.C. throughout the FN matter, stating that he wanted the boy to be raised with his half-siblings.
After the Division indicated to the court that the identity of A.R.C.'s biological father was not known, the court waived service on the father. The court maintained legal custody with the Division, while the child remained in defendant's physical custody at the rehabilitation program.
Defendant waived her right to fact-finding on the neglect charges at a hearing on September 16, 2005, in which she was again represented by counsel. She stipulated through counsel that she had a $60 per day heroin habit during her pregnancy with A.R.C., up until February 2005, when she was arrested for violating her probation.
Defendant completed the program at Straight and Narrow on December 1, 2005. At the recommendation of her counselors, she moved into Project Home, a year-long partially-supervised transitional housing program for women and children who have been affected by substance abuse and domestic violence, which also offers weekly outpatient counseling. DYFS initially received favorable progress reports from the counselors at Project Home for several months. Defendant also submitted negative urine drug screens during her first eleven months in the program.
At a subsequent permanency hearing on April 21, 2006, the trial court accepted a plan, proposed by the Division, for A.R.C. to reunify with his mother. The court found that defendant appeared to have successfully completed her treatment and was attending aftercare.
Following a compliance review hearing on August 8, 2006, the court transferred legal custody of A.R.C. to defendant, who remained in drug treatment.
During this time frame in 2006, defendant repeatedly tested negative for drugs. She also attended weekly Narcotics Anonymous meetings. In addition, defendant and A.R.C. regularly made overnight weekend visits with her older children and N.C. at his home. The children and N.C. also visited defendant and A.R.C. at Project Home. By September 2006, DYFS anticipated that the FN case would be dismissed and that reunification would be finalized in November 2006.
On November 6, 2006, Project Home reported that defendant was close to completing the program. A.R.C. had been apparently doing well in day care at the Salvation Army Daycare Center. The Division arranged for defendant to receive Section 8 housing financial assistance upon her discharge from Project Home.
Despite these temporary encouraging developments, defendant relapsed on heroin on November 10, 2006. A substance abuse clinician from Project Home had suspected the relapse because defendant appeared to have a sun-burned face, a typical sign of heroin use. When confronted, defendant admitted to staff that she had bought and snorted a bag of heroin. Defendant explained that she had felt stressed because N.C. was having problems paying the rent and that he and the other children faced imminent eviction.
Three days after her heroin relapse, defendant tested positive for opiates. Fifteen days later, defendant again tested positive for opiates. As a result, defendant and A.R.C. were forced to leave Project Home by December 8, 2006. The Family Part transferred legal custody back to the Division, by an order dated November 28, 2006, but allowed defendant to retain physical custody of her child, on the condition she enroll in a "Mommy and Me" program within ten days.
Defendant returned to live with N.C., but she failed to enroll in the "Mommy and Me" program as instructed. Consequently, the court transferred physical custody of A.R.C. back to the Division on December 7, 2006. That same day, A.R.C., who was then twenty months old, was placed in foster care with J.B.
On January 18, 2007, A.R.C. was referred to occupational and speech therapy, after a developmental evaluation revealed that he lacked communication skills and seemed disinterested in play. The child received therapy for speech and cognitive delays two times each week, in hour-long sessions at his foster home.
The court continued legal and physical custody of A.R.C. with the Division on February 20, 2007. That same day, defendant waived a drug screen, conceding that she would test positive for heroin use. Between December 2006 and February 2007, the Division attempted to implement drug assessments for defendant. Those efforts were unsuccessful, due to her noncompliance with treatment plans and Division referrals.
From March 2007 through September 2007, defendant's whereabouts were unknown to the Division. The Division subsequently learned that defendant had been incarcerated since May 2007 for violating her parole.
The other family members continued to visit A.R.C. in foster care until May 2007. Upon her release from jail in June 2007, defendant indicated to DYFS caseworkers who saw her on the street that she wanted to visit with A.R.C. However, she did not take the necessary steps to undergo an evaluation by a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor ("CADC"). She also failed to appear at a compliance review hearing in court on August 28, 2007.
A.R.C. was transferred to his current foster home in October 2007, following a two-week vacation stay there during the month of August 2007. A.R.C.'s new foster parent, J.B., declared that she wanted to adopt him.
Following a permanency hearing on October 30, 2007, the Family Part accepted DYFS's new plan to terminate defendant's parental rights. The court was persuaded that foster home adoption appeared to offer A.R.C. an acceptable option.
After an eight-month gap of contact with the child, defendant and other members of her family had a supervised visit with A.R.C. at a DYFS office on November 5, 2007. Despite the importance of this visit, defendant tested positive for opiates one week beforehand. The caseworker encouraged defendant to undergo an updated substance abuse assessment and to attend a long-term, in-patient treatment program.
During another supervised visit in December 2007, a DYFS caseworker observed that A.R.C. had seemingly bonded with his older sister, A.R., as a mother figure. A.R. indicated she would like to be considered as a placement option for A.R.C.
Between February 25, 2008 and April 9, 2008, defendant failed to appear for three separate substance abuse evaluations. Moreover, on March 17, 2008, while participating in a methadone treatment program at Spectrum Health Care, she again tested positive for opiates.
The next day, DYFS filed a complaint for guardianship (the "FG" litigation) against defendant and N.C., seeking to terminate parental rights. The FN litigation was dismissed the same day, given that a guardianship action had now been filed. The court dismissed N.C. from the FG case because he was not A.R.C.'s biological father. Nevertheless, the Family Part did order an evaluation of the bonding between A.R.C. and N.C., so that N.C. could be considered a placement option for the boy.
On March 26, 2008, a DYFS caseworker observed that defendant appeared, once again, to be under the influence of an illegal substance during another supervised visit with A.R.C.
Dr. Karen Wells, a licensed psychologist, retained by the Division, conducted evaluations of N.C. and defendant on April 30, 2008. Dr. Wells recognized N.C.'s love for A.R.C. Despite that, Dr. Wells recommended a different permanent resource for the child, based on N.C.'s history of substance abuse, and his admission to current use of marijuana during stressful situations. In addition, Dr. Wells noted that the current relationship between N.C. and defendant was "unclear." Dr. Wells found that defendant provided loving care for A.R.C. when she was not using drugs, but that she demonstrated an inability to remain abstinent from such illegal substances. Consequently, defendant was not predicted by Dr. Wells to be in a position to care for A.R.C. within the foreseeable future. As Dr. Wells's report noted:
[Defendant] continues to be at high risk for substance abuse, with an absence of treatment, a chronic history of substance abuse, and failure to assume primary responsibility on a consistent basis with her three older children. Despite more than eighteen months of involvement in two residential drug treatment programs, [defendant] continues to struggle with triggers which precipitate relapse. Clinical information strongly suggests that [defendant] must focus solely on herself, her willingness to abstain from drugs, develop alternative coping mechanisms, and learn how to live a drug-free life, including independent of any decision as it relates to reunification of [A.R.C.] in her care.
Moreover, Dr. Wells emphasized that defendant never had longer than a twenty-one month period of drug-free time during her twenty-six year history of drug use. According to Dr. Wells, defendant admitted to her that she was "not a viable candidate to assume care and responsibility for A.R.C." Dr. Wells estimated that defendant would require a minimum of twenty-four months of abstinence from drugs in an independent setting, in order to "learn how to live a drug free life."
By comparison, Dr. Wells observed that A.R.C. had established a routine with his foster mother, J.B., a routine which he understood. Dr. Wells noted that A.R.C. referred to J.B. as "mommy," and that he displayed a sense of belonging to her family.
Dr. Wells concluded that permanency for A.R.C. would be advantageously pursued through adoption. She expressly rejected the suggestion that A.R.C. be placed with defendant. More specifically, she opined:
[A.R.C.] would suffer the trauma of being separated from the person that he has a psychological bond with... [such a placement of the child also] would deteriorate from [defendant's] ability to function on her own--to address her own needs as primary... [W]hen I have supported children being placed with their parents it has been because the parent has sufficient emotional and psychological capabilities to fully address their treatment issues and maintain parental care and responsibility of their child or children. I don't see that in this situation.
On June 13, 2008, defendant returned to the Straight and Narrow long-term residential program for substance abuse, from a referral through the Hudson County Drug Court. She received eight hours of weekly didactic sessions, until she thereafter entered the Eva's Village program in mid-December 2008.
The Division notified N.C. by letter on July 17, 2008 that he had been ruled out as a placement resource for A.R.C. The rejection was based on N.C.'s financial instability, his unemployment caused by drug use, the lack of electricity in his home, and his noncompliance with his drug treatment program. Even so, the Family Part ordered the Division to re-assess N.C.'s premises as a resource home by August 15, 2008. The court also granted defendant and N.C. supervised visitations with A.R.C. every other week.
The court conducted a three-day trial in January 2009, with the participation of defendant, counsel, and A.R.C.'s Law Guardian. The trial was conducted before Judge Lourdes Santiago. Dr. Wells and Shannon Fields, a DYFS caseworker, testified for the Division.
The court heard detailed testimony from Fields about defendant's history of substance abuse, her often-failed treatment efforts, her desire to care for her child, her desire for the child to live with N.C., and her visitations with A.R.C. Fields also confirmed the Division's investigation of N.C. as a possible resource for the child.
Dr. Wells presented to the court the results of her psychological evaluations of defendant and N.C., as well as her bonding evaluations of A.R.C., defendant, and the foster parent, J.B. Dr. Wells recommended against reunification of A.R.C. with his mother, principally because of defendant's long history of substance abuse. Dr. Wells concluded that J.B. had become A.R.C.'s "psychological parent," and that the boy would suffer trauma if he were removed from the foster home.
After DYFS rested its case at trial, defendant's counsel moved to dismiss the guardianship complaint under Rule 4:40-1 and Rule 4:37-2(b). The trial judge denied the motion.
Defendant then took the stand. She related the history of her substance abuse, her drug treatment, the birth of A.R.C., and his removal from her care. She acknowledged her thirteen prior arrests, her convictions for the illegal use of drugs, and the two solicitation charges brought against her. Defendant spoke of her desire to be reunited with her son in a "Mommy and Me" treatment program.
At the time of trial, defendant was participating in a drug rehabilitation program at Eva's Village, with no known projected discharge date. She was unemployed.
Dr. Matthew Johnson, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, testified as an expert for defendant. Dr. Johnson concluded from his evaluations that defendant and A.R.C. had bonded, and that they enjoyed a parent-child relationship. Dr. Johnson noted that A.R.C. also shared a "significant parent, child bond" with N.C., as well as a "strong sibling bond... that... had characteristics of a parent, child relationship" with A.R.C.'s half-sister, A.R.
The defense expert acknowledged the "possibility" that a loss of contact between A.R.C. and defendant could cause distress. However, Dr. Johnson could not say whether that distress would "reach the level of harm."
Dr. Johnson suggested possible alternatives to the court in lieu of terminating defendant's parental rights: (1) continue A.R.C. in foster care, pending further assessment of defendant's progress; (2) consider N.C. as a custodial care provider; (3) order long-term foster care or Kinship Legal Guardianship ("KLG"); or (4) permit A.R.C.'s adoption but maintain contact between A.R.C. and his birth family.
The Law Guardian assigned to represent the interests of A.R.C. did not present any evidence or witnesses at trial. However, in summations, the Law Guardian advocated that defendant's parental rights be terminated, arguing that "[t]o keep this child in foster care a day longer is to do him a disservice."
After the trial concluded, the judge issued a twenty-two page written opinion on February 11, 2009. The judge terminated defendant's parental rights and, in absentia, those of A.R.C.'s unknown biological father. The judge noted that the case was not eligible for KLG because A.R.C.'s foster mother wished to adopt him. The judge also noted that N.C. had been considered and ruled out as a resource caretaker for the child. A.R.C. was therefore freed for adoption. A final judgment of guardianship was entered on February 11, 2009.
In its opinion, the trial court found that defendant's persistent drug abuse would negatively affect A.R.C. in the future, given defendant's admission of heroin use for over twenty years and her recent heroin relapse in November 2006. The court took note of defendant's "prolonged abuse of drugs and her relapse after treatment make her incapable of protecting and caring for [A.R.C.]" In addition, experts for both parties had concluded that defendant needed long-term treatment and that she was not currently capable of caring for A.R.C.
On the whole, the trial court found that the proofs clearly demonstrated defendant's "questionable willingness and an inability to eliminate the harm facing the child." Further, the court noted that defendant had failed to respond adequately to the Division's assistance. In particular, defendant's absence from visitations and court appearances after her relapse, and the second removal of her son from her care, signaled that defendant was unable to stop engaging in conduct harmful to her ability to parent.
The court recognized that Dr. Johnson's testimony supported Dr. Wells's opinion that defendant was presently unable to parent A.R.C., and that defendant needed an extended period of sobriety prior to being able to care for her son. The court also noted that evidence of financial stability and elimination of the processes that put defendant "in the sex trade" would have been necessary prior to any reinstatement of defendant's parental role. The trial court considered Dr. Wells's testimony to be more credible than Dr. Johnson's testimony, because Dr. Johnson had largely based his opinion only on defendant's "current short-term stay" in the Eva's Village program.
In the court's estimation, the Division had provided reasonable efforts to assist defendant prior to her relapse, as exemplified by its several attempts to assess defendant before she turned herself in to the Drug Court in May 2008. The court also noted the Division's numerous and sustained attempts to place A.R.C. in N.C.'s care, and the psychological evaluations of N.C. generated before and after defendant's heroin relapse. The court sustained the Division's decision to reject N.C. as a placement option because of his drug use and his unrealistic failure to perceive his substance abuse as problematic. Furthermore, the court did not find evidence to support the contention that A.R.C.'s twenty-year-old sister A.R. had the capacity to care for the child.
In its "best interests" analysis, the court found no clinical support to justify reuniting defendant with A.R.C. The court noted that A.R.C. easily was able to separate from defendant, who continued to "display difficulties with substance abuse, [and to lack the] personal stability and appropriate psychological and emotional functioning to effectively provide care for [A.R.C.]"
As to N.C., the court concluded that, despite his good intentions, he was unable to provide permanency and stability for the child. Instead, the court adopted the conclusion of Dr. Wells that A.R.C. would not suffer irreparable and enduring harm if his relationship with N.C. was severed.
Moreover, the court emphasized A.R.C.'s bond with his foster mother, J.B. The court found a psychological parent-child relationship existed between A.R.C. and J.B. The court cited Dr. Johnson's observation that A.R.C. desired to maintain "close physical proximity" to her, and the child had "expressed happiness" when J.B. returned to the room after leaving temporarily.
Finally, the court found Dr. Johnson unpersuasive in opining that termination of defendant's parental rights would do more harm than good. The judge explicitly found the testimony of Dr. Wells more credible in this regard.
In sum, the trial judge concluded that the Division had met its burden, through clear and convincing evidence, of showing that the best interests of A.R.C. favored terminating defendant's parental rights.
This appeal ensued. Defendant argues that the trial court erred in finding that the Division proved all four required elements to terminate her parental rights. She contends that her pre-natal use of drugs and her post-natal heroin relapse did not endanger her son, and that she tried to and was willing to remedy her substance abuse issues. As part of that argument, defendant claims for the first time on appeal that the Division's expert, Dr. Wells, impermissibly testified beyond the scope of her qualifications as a psychologist in opining about the mother's prospects for overcoming her substance abuse problems.
Defendant further maintains that a delay in A.R.C.'s permanent placement would not be harmful to him. She complains that the Division failed to make reasonable efforts to reunify her son with her, and also failed to consider sufficiently the possibility of placing A.R.C. with her paramour, N.C., or her older daughter, A.R. Lastly, defendant contends that the trial court's "best interests" analysis was flawed because the court excluded relevant proofs about A.R.C.'s relationship with his half-siblings.
In assessing the issues raised by defendant on appeal, we are mindful that the "[r]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 do not disturb a trial judge'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 N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. G.L., 191 N.J. 596, 605 (2007)). Additionally, we customarily do not second-guess the factual findings of judges, particularly judges in the Family Part, given the Family Part's expertise in matters that involve domestic relations and the welfare of children. Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998).
The applicable four-part substantive standards for the termination of a parent's rights in a Title 30 guardianship 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).]
Given our deferential standard of review, and recognizing the trial judge's "feel for the case" after having seen and heard the various lay and expert witnesses, we are satisfied from our own independent review of the record that it amply supports the judge's finding that the Division has proven all four termination criteria here by the required level of clear and convincing proof. We consequently affirm the judgment issued by the Family Part, substantially for the cogent reasons set forth in Judge Santiago's detailed written opinion of February 11, 2009. We only add a few additional observations.
Succinctly stated, the record reflects that defendant, a woman in her forties, has an unfortunate history of over two decades of substance abuse, particularly heroin. She has multiple convictions for drug use, and three of her children, including A.R.C., were born with drug dependencies. She has been unable to raise her older children, to maintain employment, or to abstain from the pernicious effects of a drug habit, despite enrolling and re-enrolling in a variety of treatment programs. She relapsed on heroin even after custody of A.R.C. was temporarily restored to her in 2006. Neither of the experts who testified at trial were able to forecast that defendant was likely to stabilize herself to become a drug-free and competent caregiver in the near future. By contrast, A.R.C. has bonded with his foster mother of more than two years, who wishes to adopt him, and has been awaiting a permanent home for more than four years. The Division reasonably attempted to provide defendant with services and considered alternatives to termination.
We are unpersuaded by defendant's claim that the trial court and the Division should have explored more fully whether defendant's paramour, N.C., or the child's older half-sister, A.R., could suitably provide ongoing temporary care to A.R.C. until defendant herself could begin to fulfill her responsibilities as a parent. N.C. has been unable to consistently maintain a safe and sound home himself and to remain drug-free. Moreover, his relationship with defendant has not always been harmonious. A.R., meanwhile, already has a child of her own, and has had to rely on N.C. to assist her as a young, single mother.
Additionally, we reject defendant's argument that the Division's expert, Dr. Wells, a licensed psychologist, lacked sufficient expertise in drug addiction to opine on the prospects of defendant achieving a sufficiently drug-free and stable life to care for her son. Dr. Wells's credentials as a licensed psychologist--with a Ph.D. from Rutgers University and more than a decade of full-time private practice working with children and families--amply satisfy the admissibility criteria of N.J.R.E. 702. She did not need to have a special certificate or credential in substance abuse to be able to evaluate defendant's addiction and parenting issues. Indeed, defendant's own expert, Dr. Johnson, similarly is a licensed psychologist who also does not have separate certificates in substance abuse. The court had sufficient grounds to consider the opinions of both experts, along with the extensive documentation of defendant's frequent relapses into drug abuse.
Additionally, we disagree with defendant that she was unfairly prejudiced when the trial court limited certain testimony about A.R.C.'s relationship with her half-siblings. Even if such additional testimony had been elicited, it would not have materially changed the overall analysis of defendant's inability to parent capably, or the wisdom of providing A.R.C. with a permanent home with his foster mother.