On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Camden County, Docket No. FG-04-63-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted: November 30, 2009
Before Judges Lisa and Baxter.
Defendant, A.A., appeals from a judgment of guardianship terminating her parental rights to her sons, D.A. (born August 26, 2005), N.K.A. (born June 6, 2003), D.J.A. (born February 7, 2000), and D.L.A. (born July 30, 1998).*fn1 Defendant argues that the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS or Division) failed to present clear and convincing evidence to satisfy its burden of establishing all four prongs of the best interests of the child test. The Law Guardian supported termination in the trial court and, on appeal, joins the Division in urging us to affirm the termination order. We are satisfied from our review of the record that the Division presented sufficient evidence to support Judge Laskin's finding that all four prongs were clearly and convincingly established. Therefore, we affirm.
The Division's contacts with A.A. and her children date back to at least 1998. Contacts between then and 2006 were sporadic, and resulted primarily in unsubstantiated allegations of abuse and neglect. The case was reopened on February 28, 2006, because of an incident in which D.J.A. was injured, suffering a severe laceration to his head. The investigating caseworker determined that the living arrangements for defendant and her five children were inadequate, and a series of efforts were initiated to assist defendant in obtaining suitable housing.
Over the ensuing months, defendant was uncooperative with the substantial efforts being made by the Division to obtain suitable housing. Defendant also resisted the Division's effort to arrange for a psychological evaluation for defendant. On June 6, 2006, a DYFS caseworker visited the family at the hotel in which they were staying since being evicted from their prior residence. Defendant "was very resistant to the idea of anyone helping her." By July 20, 2006, defendant and the children had moved out of the hotel and moved into a residence in Camden, to which a caseworker delivered food and furniture.
Over the course of the next year, the Division continued to monitor the situation, with periodic visits and offers of additional services. Defendant continued to resist availing herself of the offered services. On some of these visits, evidence of emotional abuse of the children was detected. On one occasion, the caseworker noted that the children looked scared, sad and miserable. On April 27, 2007, the caseworker learned that defendant had not been keeping her children up to date in their medical care, and that the children's school had unsuccessfully attempted to contact defendant six separate times regarding D.L.A.'s poor performance.
On May 14, 2007, the caseworker received a call from defendant's landlord informing her that defendant was past due on her rent and about to be evicted. The caseworker immediately went to defendant's home to offer assistance. The caseworker noticed that a bed purchased and furnished by the Division had not been assembled. The landlord temporarily refrained from following through with the eviction out of concern for the children. Defendant had quit her job and was unemployed. Defendant said she planned to move in with relatives in Camden, but refused to provide the address or any other details.
On July 24, 2007, defendant appeared at the local Division office with all five children. She stated that the eviction was now going forward. She offered to place the children in temporary foster care. The caseworker persuaded defendant not to do so, and instead to allow the Division to assist her in obtaining housing. Defendant agreed to go with the caseworker to the welfare office the next day to apply for the emergency housing program. However, when the caseworker arrived to take defendant there, defendant refused to go. In the face of defendant's uncooperativeness, the caseworker went to the office and obtained the housing application forms, which she brought back to defendant to fill out. Defendant filled out the forms, but never went to City Hall to get copies of the children's birth certificates, which were needed to process the application.
Into early August, the caseworker continued in her efforts to persuade defendant to cooperate in applying for emergency housing, but to no avail. Finally, on August 3, 2007, defendant arrived at the Division office and announced that she had been evicted. The caseworker persuaded defendant to walk with her to the welfare office to attempt to obtain emergency housing. Because it was late on a Friday, personnel at the welfare office said there was nothing that could be done until Monday morning. The caseworker then told defendant the children would have to be placed in foster care. Defendant contacted family members, and four of the children were placed with family members. The youngest child, D.A., was placed in foster care. Defendant continued to remain uncooperative in obtaining housing.
On August 7, 2007, the court awarded custody of the children to DYFS pursuant to its abuse and neglect complaint. The court found that removal was necessary because defendant was homeless, despite the Division's effort to prevent homelessness. The court also ordered that the children could be returned to defendant if she secured adequate housing by the next hearing, which was scheduled for September 14, 2007. Defendant failed to appear at the September 14 hearing, as well as subsequent hearings in November 2007 and February and April 2008.
DYFS offered defendant regular visitation. Defendant visited with the children for the first two weeks after their removal on August 3, 2007. However, for the next ten months, defendant's whereabouts became unknown to the Division, and she had very little contact with the children. At a June 5, 2008 compliance hearing, defendant continued to refuse to provide any details about her alleged efforts to secure housing. At this hearing, it was also revealed that the two older boys, D.L.A. and D.J.A., had moved into the home of their paternal great aunt, B.F. The two younger boys were in a foster home.
Defendant visited with her children on June 18, 2008. Although she interacted appropriately with them, she refused to discuss her housing situation with the caseworker. When told a psychological evaluation was scheduled for her, defendant tore up the written notice of the appointment and threw it in the trash, stating there was nothing ...