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New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services v. L.H.

December 31, 2009


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Middlesex County, Docket No. FN-12-171-08.

Per curiam.



Submitted November 10, 2009

Before Judges Fuentes and Gilroy.

This is an abuse and neglect action. Defendants L.H. and C.R. are the biological mother and father, respectively, of A.R., born November 2007. C.R. appeals from the March 3, 2009 dispositional order that dismissed the abuse or neglect complaint after the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) had filed a complaint for termination of parental rights. On appeal, C.R. challenges the trial court's June 25, 2008 fact-finding determination that he abused or neglected A.R.*fn1 The June 25, 2008 order also determined that L.H. had abused or neglected A.R., but she does not appeal. We affirm.


On November 28, 2007, DYFS filed a complaint alleging abuse or neglect against C.R. and L.H., seeking custody of A.R. pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21 to -8.73 and N.J.S.A. 30:4C-12. On February 6, 2008, the court conducted a compliance review hearing. Based on the court's review of DYFS's allegations in the verified complaint and the findings contained in defendants' psychological evaluation reports, the court ordered A.R. to remain in DYFS's care and custody.

On March 19, May 21, and June 25, 2008, the court conducted its fact-finding hearing. On the last day of the hearing, the court entered an order determining that both parents had abused or neglected A.R. On November 12, 2008, the court conducted a permanency hearing and approved DYFS's plan for termination of parental rights followed by adoption. On March 3, 2009, after DYFS filed its termination complaint, the court entered an order dismissing the abuse or neglect complaint and directed that A.R. remain in the legal and physical custody of DYFS pending the termination proceeding.


On June 23, 2005, DYFS first became involved with L.H. and her older daughter, K.W.H., born July 2003, when DYFS received a referral that L.H. had failed to properly care for K.W.H. C.R. is not the biological father of K.W.H. For the next two years, DYFS provided multiple services to L.H. and K.W.H. During this time, C.R. resided with L.H. and K.W.H. On January 6, 2006, because of its concern for K.W.H.'s safety and well-being, DYFS removed her from L.H.'s care and placed her in an approved resource home. Three days later, DYFS filed a complaint for custody of K.W.H. On March 30, 2007, DYFS filed a complaint for guardianship on behalf of the child.

On May 3, 2007, L.H. informed a DYFS Assistant Family Service Worker (AFSW) that she was pregnant, and the baby was due in November 2007. In the morning of August 2, 2007, an AFSW arrived at L.H.'s home to transport her to a scheduled medical appointment. C.R. answered the door and informed the AFSW that L.H. had gone to the emergency room because she was not feeling well. The worker observed that C.R. smelled of alcoholic beverages. On September 2, 2007, DYFS referred C.R. and L.H. for substance abuse evaluations, having received an anonymous report that L.H. had been drinking during her pregnancy.

On September 7, 2007, the AFSW received the telephone call from L.H. requesting that someone come to her apartment to settle a dispute between her and C.R. The AFSW arrived at the apartment at approximately 3:40 p.m. and observed C.R. pulling L.H. "roughly by her shirt" in the backyard of the apartment building. The AFSW observed alcoholic beverages in the yard and described C.R. as "very intoxicated," with sluggish speech and smelling of alcohol.

On October 30, 2007, C.R. pled guilty to the disorderly persons offense of simple assault for striking L.H. in the stomach. As part of his sentence, the municipal court directed C.R. to complete an alcoholic rehabilitation program at the Princeton House Behavioral Health Care facility. Although C.R. immediately began treatment at Princeton House, he stopped attending upon the birth of A.R.; however, C.R. returned to treatment on December 6, 2007, completing the program on January 7, 2008.

In November 2007, L.H. gave birth to A.R. at the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital. A.R., born prematurely, was placed in the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit because of breathing problems. A.R. was also born with a kidney problem for which she receives medication to prevent infection and may need an operation in the future.

In the interim, L.H. executed a voluntary identified surrender of L.W.H. in favor of the child's caretaker. On November 28, 2007, DYFS filed the abuse or neglect complaint seeking custody of A.R. On January 22, 2008, Dr. Karen Wells, Ph.D. conducted psychological evaluations of C.R. and L.H. on behalf of DYFS.

On February 6, 2008, the court conducted a compliance review. On that date, the court entered an order directing, among other things, that: 1) A.R. was to remain in the physical custody and care of DYFS; 2) C.R. was to submit to psychological and substance abuse treatment at the Raritan Bay Medical Center; 3) C.R. was to attend parenting skills training at Multicultural Community Services, Inc. (MCS), and to cooperate with all other services offered by that agency; and 4) DYFS was to provide C.R. supervised visitation with A.R., as arranged by MCS.

On March 19, 2008, the court commenced its fact-finding hearing. On that day, DYFS placed certain exhibits into evidence, including Dr. Wells's sixteen-page psychological report of C.R., and the February 28, 2008 letter from the United States Social Security Administration (SSA) confirming C.R.'s receipt of Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits. Dr. Wells's report indicated that she conducted her evaluation of C.R. "to assess his cognitive, intellectual, psychological and emotional functioning as it relates to his ability to provide appropriate and effective parenting of his daughter, [A.R.], born [November 2007]." In the report, Dr. Wells discussed C.R.'s prior involvement with the legal system that included C.R.'s admission of serving a five-month jail term for assaulting a police officer and was presently on probation for having committed an act of domestic violence against L.H. In addition to his prior criminal history, C.R. self-reported his history of psychiatric issues and treatment:

In addition to his involvement with the police, [C.R.] also has a psychiatric history. Informing that he has been diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder and anxiety, [C.R.] related that his most recent psychiatric hospitalization was in March 2006. Hospitalized for eight days at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, prior to this hospitalization, [C.R.] had been in[-]patient at Princeton House for seven days in January 2006. He also stated that he was hospitalized at Bellevue while living in New York, sharing that this occurred for a month in 2002. [C.R.] explained, however, "I was homeless and it was cold outside. I just wanted them to help me get into a program." [C.R.] stated that following this hospitalization, he "got into a drug and alcohol program." [C.R.] shared that he became homeless after he lost his apartment. Elaborating, he explained, "I was drinking. I was doing drugs, smoking weed and taking these pills. I don't even know the name of them . . . . Those pills make you crazy. I thought I was Jesus Christ. I was walking down the street. The cops stopped me, I told them I was Jesus Christ . . . ." [C.R.] shared that he has been diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder, a psychiatric condition indicating significant psychopathology. While there were no indications of symptoms displayed during the current evaluation, [C.R.] informed that he had been hospitalized on more than one occasion to address mental health concerns. . . .

There is reason to believe that at least a moderate level of pathology characterizes [C.R.'s] overall personality organization. Defective psychic structures suggest a failure to develop adequate internal cohesion and a less than satisfactory hierarchy of coping strategies. [C.R.'s] foundation for effective intrapsychic regulation and socially acceptable interpersonal conduct appears deficient or incompetent. He is subject to the flux of his own enigmatic attitudes and contradictory behavior, and his sense of psychic coherence is often precarious. [C.R.] has a checkered history of disappointments in his personal and family relationships. Deficits in his social attainments may also be notable as well as a tendency to precipitate self-defeating vicious circles. Earlier aspirations may have resulted in frustrating setbacks and efforts to achieve a consistent niche in life may have failed. While [C.R.] is usually able to function on a satisfactory basis, he may experience periods of marked emotional, cognitive, or behavioral dysfunction.

. . . . [C.R.] attempts to maintain an image of cool strength, courage, and manliness. Such behaviors as courting danger and punishment and being unsentimental and competitive are viewed with pride. More significantly, [C.R.] may display a rash willingness to risk harm, and he is notably fearless in the face of threats and punitive action. In fact, there are occasions when punishment only reinforces his rebellious and hostile feelings. Malicious tendencies seen in others are used to justify his own aggressive inclinations and may lead to frequent ...

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