January 22, 2010
NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
L.L., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT, AND L.G., DEFENDANT.
IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP OF A.L.G., A MINOR.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Camden County, Docket No. FG-04-147-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 4, 2010
Before Judges Axelrad, Sapp-Peterson and Espinosa.
L.L. appeals from the final order terminating her parental rights to her daughter, A.L.G.*fn1 She contends that the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) failed to present clear and convincing evidence of the four prongs of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a) required to warrant termination. We affirm.
We adopt the factual findings of the trial court in its written decision dated February 20, 2009, and note only the following salient facts.
A.L.G. was L.L.'s seventh child, born on March 20, 2007. DYFS first became involved with L.L. approximately fourteen years earlier. L.L.'s rights to five of the six children she had before A.L.G. were terminated; the exception being her oldest son who has reached majority. A.L.G. has not lived with L.L. since she was removed from her care at approximately five weeks old. DYFS intervened when L.L. left A.L.G. alone at home, a residence described as being in deplorable condition with no working utilities. Since her removal, A.L.G. has lived with a foster mother who seeks to adopt her.*fn2
L.L. has a history of chronic mental illness. Reports of bizarre behavior have ranged from asking herself questions and answering them during an interview, to episodes of disrobing in public, urinating in public areas and hostile behavior that included harassing DYFS employees and carrying an eight-inch knife in public. She has had multiple involuntary hospitalizations dating back to 1998 and a well documented history of refusing to take prescribed medications, even when hospitalized. Her resistance to treatment and even diagnosis is further demonstrated by her persistent denials of her mental illness, symptoms and the need for treatment.
In addition to other evidence regarding L.L.'s mental health, DYFS presented the testimony of a clinical psychologist, Dr. Linda Jeffrey. After reviewing L.L.'s prior records and conducting an evaluation, Dr. Jeffrey diagnosed L.L. with bipolar disorder with psychotic features. She explained that
L.L. suffered from both a mood and thought disorder that made her unable to manage her emotions and moods and that her condition also presented with paranoia and difficulty forming relationships.
Dr. Jeffrey described L.L.'s conduct during her interview as irritable, hostile and bizarre, causing several test results to be invalid. She had conducted two prior evaluations of L.L. and, in each evaluation, had determined a Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) score for L.L. In 2003, L.L.'s GAF score was 60 out of a possible 100, which Dr. Jeffrey described as "a quite impaired score" but one in which the individual has some features of normal functioning. In the evaluation performed for this case, L.L.'s GAF score was 30, reflecting "much more serious kinds of behaviors." Dr. Jeffrey stated that this score "means that she is experiencing major problems with communication, with being able to function in a situation such as the psychological evaluation context. . . . she was displaying unusual, bizarre and extremely noncompliant patterns of interaction."
Dr. Jeffrey stated that L.L.'s history of noncompliance with medication, decompensation, hospitalization and pattern of aggressive hostility presented a poor prognosis. She concluded that a child would be at risk in L.L.'s care. Noting the progressive nature of psychotic disorders and L.L.'s history, she stated that it was unlikely that L.L. could progress significantly to the point where she could safely parent a child within a period of six to nine months.
Dr. Jeffrey also conducted bonding evaluations of A.L.G. with L.L. and with her foster mother. Although A.L.G. was familiar with L.L., she did not respond to her with spontaneous affection and did not relate to her as a parental attachment figure but rather as a temporary caretaker. L.L. did not respond to A.L.G. in an age-appropriate manner, did not engage her in conversation or maintain eye contact with her. In contrast, A.L.G. related to her foster mother as her psychological mother. Dr. Jeffrey concluded that A.L.G is likely to be at risk for harm if placed in the care of L.L. and that the termination of L.L.'s parental rights was unlikely to cause A.L.G. any harm. In light of A.L.G.'s secure attachment to her foster mother and the fact that she was at a critical period for attachment, Dr. Jeffrey concluded that A.L.G. would be at risk for severe and enduring harm if that relationship were severed. She also stated that because A.L.G. had a greater genetic vulnerability to serious mental health issues, it was critical for her to have a stable environment with nurturing, responsible, consistent, predictable care.
Dr. Jeffrey's testimony was unrefuted by any expert testimony on behalf of L.L.
Efforts by DYFS to provide appropriate services to L.L. were, in large degree, thwarted by L.L.'s lack of cooperation. A caseworker met with L.L. in May 2007, approximately two weeks after A.L.G. was removed from her custody but L.L. refused to answer any questions and refused to attend any family team meetings thereafter. Although L.L. was generally consistent in visits with A.L.G. when she was not hospitalized, her lack of cooperation and hostility toward DYFS employees presented serious obstacles to the ability of DYFS to work with her. She refused to sign documents, and, when she came to the office, she frequently yelled, cursed and threw things through the receptionist window. As a result, there were several calls to the police to remove her from the building. L.L. was also uncooperative with outpatient psychiatric support services. She missed appointments and refused to give her new telephone number to the service providers.
In her testimony, L.L. admitted that she had been hospitalized once in the sixteen months since A.L.G.'s birth but stated, "They didn't really have a reason. They didn't have any explanation." She stated that she had been taking her medication and participating in outpatient group sessions.
Although she contended that she had been nice to Dr. Jeffrey, she agreed that Dr. Jeffrey had accurately described her conduct and explained, "I feel like if I didn't want to do it, I didn't have to." Her plan for reunification with A.L.G. was to place her in a day care facility while she worked and to have her mother and L.G. help her.
An Order was entered on March 6, 2009, terminating the rights of L.L. and L.G. to A.L.G. for the reasons set forth in the trial court's written opinion dated February 20, 2009. L.L. raises the following issues on appeal:
THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN RULING THAT DEFENDANT'S PARENTAL RIGHTS SHOULD BE TERMINATED AS THE STATE FAILED TO PROVE, BY THE REQUIRED CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE, THAT TERMINATION OF THE PARENTAL RIGHTS WAS APPROPRIATE.
A. THE CHILD'S HEALTH AND DEVELOPMENT WAS NOT ENDANGERED BY THE PARENTAL RELATIONSHIP.
B. THE DEFENDANT WAS ABLE AND WILLING TO ELIMINATE THE HARM FACING THE CHILD AND WAS ABLE AND WILLING TO PROVIDE A SAFE AND STABLE HOME FOR ALG.
C. THE DIVISION DID NOT MAKE REASONABLE EFFORTS TO PROVIDE SERVICES TO CORRECT THE CIRCUMSTANCES WHICH LED TO THE CHILD'S PLACEMENT OUTSIDE THE HOME.
D. TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS WILL DO MORE HARM THAN GOOD.
A trial court's decision to terminate parental rights is subject to limited appellate review. N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. G.L., 191 N.J. 596, 605 (2007). If supported by "adequate, substantial, and credible evidence in the record," the trial court's findings of fact are entitled to deference. Ibid. See also Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 413 (1998) ("Because of the family courts' special . . . expertise in family matters, appellate courts should accord deference to family court factfinding."). The family court's decision to terminate parental rights will not be disturbed "when there is substantial credible evidence in the record to support the court's findings." N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. E.P., 196 N.J. 88, 104 (2008).
N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a) authorizes DYFS to petition for the termination of parental rights in the "best interests of the child" if the following standards are met:
(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) The division 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.
The trial court carefully considered each of these prongs and cited adequate, substantial evidence in the record to support its conclusion that each of the prongs had been proven by clear and convincing evidence. Because we find that the trial court's findings are supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence in the record, we affirm for the reasons set forth in the trial court's written decision.