On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Hudson County, Docket No. FG-09-111-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 17, 2009
Before Judges Wefing, Grall and LeWinn.
A.I. is the natural mother of J.G.M., a nine-year-old boy. She appeals from the January 29, 2007 judgment of the Family Part terminating her parental rights,*fn1 and from the October 9, 2008 order affirming termination following our remand.
The Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) and the child's Law Guardian contend that grounds for termination have been established by clear and convincing evidence under each of the four prongs of the best interests standard set forth in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a). Our review of the record and the arguments presented leads us to conclude that no grounds exist on which to disturb Judge Salvatore Bovino's factual findings or legal conclusions. In re Guardianship of J.N.H., 172 N.J. 440, 472 (2002). Accordingly, we affirm.
The protracted and tortured history of this matter may be summarized as follows. A.I. is also the mother of three daughters: C.I., born in July 1990; E.M., born in September, 1991; and M.P., born in January, 1995; and another son, S.R., born in December, 2005. A.I. first came to the attention of DYFS in April 1999, upon reports of physical abuse of her three daughters. DYFS determined those reports to be "not substantiated," but defendant did acknowledge that she slapped the children. In September 1999, A.I.'s sister reported to DYFS that defendant "punches, pinches and pulls the girls' hair[,]" resulting in bruising of the children. Defendant admitted spanking the girls and hitting them with a belt on occasion. The girls were inconsistent in their accounts and admitted that they physically fought with each other. DYFS again determined that abuse allegations were unsubstantiated.
J.M. reported that during 1999-2000, he saw defendant acting in a very violent manner with the girls; she also physically attacked him, leading him to obtain a domestic violence restraining order against her.
In February 2001, DYFS was alerted by the police to a caller who claimed that defendant was beating her children. DYFS determined that although M.P. had a black eye and E.M. had scratches on her face, the injuries were accidental.
DYFS continued to receive referrals of abuse from 2001 into 2004. In June 2004, an eyewitness reported that defendant "unmercifully" beat E.M. after learning that the child was being retained in her grade at school; defendant stated to E.M., "I'm going to beat your face unrecognizably." A DYFS caseworker interviewed E.M. who "gave the impression that she needed to protect her mother and family" and repeatedly stated that her mother had not hit her.
As a result of this incident, however, defendant was arrested for endangering the welfare of a child. Defendant signed a consent to place the children for fifteen days with her mother, M.B. At the end of that period, all of the children were returned to defendant.
In July 2004, defendant attended a DYFS-referred psychological evaluation with Dr. Leslie Trott, who concluded that defendant was "cognitively competent" and did not suffer from any psychological problems; the doctor found that defendant was stressed by the demands of being a single mother, but there was no evidence she was a threat to the children.
On March 24, 2005, then fourteen-year-old C.I. called the police claiming that defendant became angry when C.I. did not put the vacuum cleaner away fast enough and bit her nose and shoulder. E.M. told the responding caseworker that she witnessed her mother bite C.I. and that defendant had bitten her as well.
Defendant's version of this incident was that C.I. and E.M. had been fighting. She refused to accept homemaker services and agreed to have the children placed out of her home saying, "[M]aybe it would teach them a lesson[.]" On this occasion, abuse was substantiated; the children were removed on an emergent basis and once again placed in the custody of their maternal grandmother. As a result of this incident, defendant pled guilty to fourth-degree child abuse for inflicting unnecessary corporal punishment on C.I.; she received a sentence of probation for one year.
On March 29, 2005, DYFS filed a complaint for custody, care and supervision of C.I., E.M., M.P. and J.G.M. The children were removed from their grandmother's home on June 27, 2005, when the grandmother asked C.I. and E.M. to leave after an argument and the police reported they had been to the home twice due to the girls' fights with their grandmother. DYFS investigated and heard allegations from C.I. and E.M. that their grandmother's husband had sexually molested them years earlier. The girls said that they informed both defendant and their grandmother of this.
Defendant admitted that the girls had told her about the abuse and that she had confronted her mother who "begged" her not to report it. The grandmother's husband eventually pled guilty to two counts of second-degree sexual assault.
DYFS placed M.P. with her biological father; the other three children were placed with a family friend, M.R. By July 21, 2005, however, M.R. reported that she could no longer handle C.I. and E.M., and the girls were removed from M.R.'s home and placed in different foster homes until December 2005 when they were placed with another friend, M.E.
J.G.M. remained with M.R until November 3, 2005, when M.R. violated DYFS policy by spanking him. J.G.M. was then placed with the sister of M.E.
Shortly after the children's removal from their grandmother's home in July 2005, defendant underwent a psychological evaluation by Dr. Gregory Gambone at DYFS's request, to assess her risk as a child abuser. Although Dr. Gambone found defendant "psychologically stable," he opined that she had "limited control" over her anger, which led to "impulsive aggression, and that defendant tended to blame others for her circumstances. Dr. Gambone diagnosed defendant with an adjustment disorder with "mixed disturbance of emotions and conduct," and recommended a psychiatric evaluation, anger management training, parenting training, family therapy and individual counseling.
In November 2005, defendant underwent a psychiatric evaluation with Dr. Devendra Kurani. Dr. Kurani concluded that defendant suffered from an adjustment disorder and "could benefit from psychotherapy," but did not require medication. At this time, defendant began family and individual counseling as well as anger management classes; she also completed a parenting class.
Defendant gave birth to another child, S.R., in December 2005. On January 4, 2006, the court granted DYFS's order to show cause seeking to place S.R. in the custody of his natural father; the court then dismissed S.R. and his father from the pending litigation.
In March 2006, DYFS arranged for a psychological evaluation of J.G.M. after it was reported that he had "inappropriately touch[ed]" another child. The evaluation was conducted by Dr. Manual Iser, who determined that J.G.M. had conflicted feelings about his mother and believed that she had abandoned him. Dr. Iser recommended short-term individual therapy for J.G.M. to focus on issues of anger related to his family.
In May 2006, Dr. Frank Dyer performed a psychological evaluation of defendant at the request of DYFS. Based upon his interview and psychological testing, Dr. Dyer opined that defendant was "a histrionic individual who is entrenched in a position of rigid denial in regard to any personal shortcomings that may be in need of therapeutic attention." Dr. Dyer described defendant as presenting in a "defensive manner," and as "an emotionally volatile individual who tends to be superficially charming, adept at engaging others to meet her need of the moment, and extremely demanding and manipulative."
Dr. Dyer believed that defendant was so concerned with protecting her children from repeating the mistakes she had made (such as becoming pregnant at the age of fourteen), that she was extremely rigid with the children, which in turn drove the girls to act out. Additionally, defendant's failure to acknowledge any wrongdoing that may have negatively affected her children (such as her awareness of the sexual abuse of C.I. and E.M. and her failure to protect the girls based on that knowledge) indicated that the counseling defendant had undergone had failed to assist her in changing her abusive behavior. Dr. Dyer concluded that defendant continued to present a danger to her children and should not be reunited with them.
On June 28, 2006, the trial judge signed a permanency order approving a plan of termination of parental rights for M.P. and J.G.M. because defendant "did not have a safe and suitable home." DYFS did not seek termination of defendant's parental rights to C.I. and E.M. at that time; rather, DYFS sought to "explore placement." On that same date M.P. and J.G.M. were removed from M.E.'s home and placed in separate foster homes.
In the summer of 2006, defendant's brother, Ca.I., who had recently returned to the area, leased an apartment in the same building as defendant; C.I. and E.M. moved in with him. Ca.I. offered to be a resource for permanent placement for M.P. and J.G.M.; towards that end, DYFS had him undergo psychological and bonding evaluations with Dr. Dyer. Ca.I. understood that if he obtained custody of the children, it would be on the condition that defendant have no unsupervised contact with them.
Dr. Dyer had a mixed opinion as to the feasibility of placing the children with Ca.I. While Dr. Dyer concluded that Ca.I. was "a reasonably mature and well-functioning adult" who could lend "stability to the situation," nonetheless, the doctor was concerned that Ca.I. would permit extensive unsupervised contact between the children and defendant. Therefore, Dr. Dyer recommended that Ca.I. not be considered as a resource for either J.G.M. or M.P.
On August 15, 2006, DYFS filed an order to show cause and complaint for guardianship seeking to terminate the parental rights of defendant and J.P. to their daughter M.P. and of defendant and J.M. to their son, J.G.M. M.P. was eventually dismissed from the litigation and was placed in the legal and physical custody of defendant, with supervision to continue through DYFS.
On September 20, 2006, C.I. and E.M. were reunited with defendant over DYFS's objection. Shortly after her return to her mother's custody, C.I. was suspended from school several times and ran away from home. E.M. was also suspended from school twice. C.I. was arrested for assaulting two principals. The two girls frequently had physical fights with each other that included biting. DYFS caseworker Christina Huggins gave defendant a phone number for a behavioral program called Value Options, which would provide a needs assessment in the home; defendant, however, never called the program.
In October 2006, Dr. Dyer performed a bonding evaluation of defendant with her children. After interviewing defendant and observing her interactions with C.I., E.M. and J.G.M., Dr. Dyer found that defendant had benefited from therapy and was attempting to adopt a non-abusive style of parental discipline. He concluded that defendant was J.G.M.'s "sole attachment figure," and that if the mother-son relationship were to be completely severed, "it would result in a significant emotional loss for [J.G.M.]."
Defendant's visitation with J.G.M. was to be supervised in the apartment of her brother Ca.I. On January 12, 2007, DYFS received a referral that J.G.M. was being left alone with his mother during weekend visits. DYFS caseworker Regina Simmons responded to defendant's address; defendant however would not allow her into her home. Simmons returned three hours later and saw C.I., M.P. and ...