On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Monmouth County, Docket No. FG-13-67-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 11, 2010
Before Judges Rodríguez, Reisner and Yannotti.
M.A.L. (birth mother) appeals from the Guardianship Judgment, terminating her parental rights to her minor children, M.L. (a boy age 10) and A.L. (a girl age 6)*fn1. M.L.'s father resides in Port Au Prince, Haiti, and A.L.'s father resides in Elizabeth. Neither of the birth fathers participated in this action nor challenge the Guardianship Judgment. We affirm.
These are the salient facts. M.A.L. was born in 1980 in Haiti. She primarily speaks Creole, but she is capable of a basic line of communication in English. In late 2004, M.A.L. began dating a man named H.S. and moved her family in with him and his two children in early April 2005. A month later, on May 23, 2005, the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) was first called about the family. According to a child protective service report, H.S. found A.L. (then two-years-old) in an unresponsive state and took her to the Jersey Shore University Medical Center (JSUMC). Upon arrival, she was breathing but was very lethargic; her right cheek and both hands were "puffy and swollen;" she had abrasions on her back, left cheek, and bruises on her left arm; and her lower left thigh, stomach, hands, and right buttock had marks that revealed bruises and lacerations in a healing state. There were also multiple bruises on her back, and her nose was infected with a peeling area that looked like an old burn. She was admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit (ICU).
Steven W. Kairys, M.D., a pediatrician, treated A.L. He indicated that in addition to the multiple bruises and lacerations, A.L. also had anemia that was so severe that it would have incapacitated an adult. The level of CPK (creatinine phosophokinase) in her blood was around 3,000, but the normal range is eighty. This was likely caused from a trauma to the muscle, caused by an "acute event" such as child abuse. Finally, she had both healed and new retinal hemorrhages in both eyes. The anemia, high CPK levels, and retinal hemorrhages, combined with numerous odd-shaped abrasions all over A.L.'s body caused Dr. Kairys enough concern to report it as a case of suspected child abuse.
Subsequently, M.A.L. stipulated that A.L. suffered injuries consistent with Dr. Kariys's report while in her care. A DYFS investigator came to the hospital to interview the family. H.S. told the investigator that, after taking M.A.L. to work, he fed A.L. a breakfast of spaghetti and juice. It was normal practice for H.S. to watch A.L. while M.A.L. worked and M.L. was in school. H.S. said A.L. was falling asleep in her chair, so he put her down for a nap at 10 a.m. At 2:45 p.m. he tried to wake her and she was unresponsive, so he shook her, performed CPR, and called 911. H.S. denied abusing or neglecting the children and said that A.L.'s scratches were from allergies.
The investigator interviewed M.A.L., with the help of an interpreter, and she said that she gave A.L. a spaghetti breakfast that morning, then took M.L. to school and went to work. She called home that day during lunch and H.S. told her that A.L. was fine and had rice and beans for lunch.
M.A.L. consented to a fifteen-day placement of M.L. with family friends while more information about A.L.'s injuries was gathered. A.L. remained in ICU.
The next day, a DYFS caseworker interviewed M.L., who was then six-years-old. M.L. said that his mother gives him "whippins" with a belt on his hands and his chest. He also indicated that H.S.'s son pushes and hits him and he is scared of him.
A.L. was discharged from JSUMC on June 2, 2005. DFYS was given temporary custody and placed her in a home for medically fragile children. Several days later, DYFS filed a Verified Abuse/Neglect Complaint. Docket No. FN-13-223-05. On that same date, Judge James J. McGann signed an order placing M.L. and A.L. in the immediate custody, care, and supervision of DYFS and assigned the children a Law Guardian.
M.A.L. and H.S. were allowed visitations with the children. The first occurred on June 6, 2005. During the first visit, A.L. went straight for her mother and hugged her, but cried hysterically when H.S. tried to hold her. As A.L. continued to cry every time she saw H.S., future visits were made with M.A.L. and the children only.
Both children were placed in foster homes a few months later. Attempts to place the children with relatives were unsuccessful. M.L. had been living with his maternal aunt, but he was sent to a foster home because the aunt's home was too small and several people shared a single bed. A maternal cousin, N.S., was evaluated, but her house was not big enough to accommodate the children and she lacked the financial resources to care for them.
In October 2005, a DYFS social worker was called to school because M.L. was acting out of control. M.L. was taken to Riverview Medical Center. There, he told social workers that he wanted to jump off a building, that he wanted to die, and that he wanted to go live with Jesus. M.L. told the social worker that he wanted her to be his "mommy" and that he did not want to go home with his "real mommy." He said that both M.A.L. and H.S. beat him and the other children. He displayed scars on his shoulder and arm and said they were from being hit with a belt. He also said that H.S. told M.A.L. to hit A.L. and that is how she got the scar on her nose. M.L. was admitted to the Monmouth County Medical Center. There, he was put on several medications for impulsive behaviors, attention deficit disorder, depression, and conduct disorder. When told about M.L.'s condition, M.A.L. laughed and left the room.
Chester E. Sigafoos, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, performed an evaluation on M.A.L. She told Dr. Sigafoos that A.L.'s biological father physically and sexually abused her three or four times a week, but she never called the police. She denied that any domestic violence had occurred between her and H.S. The evaluation revealed that she has limited intellectual functioning. This condition may interfere with her ability to care for children. Her inability to accurately perceive events in her life "contribute to her inability to accurately [assess] situations... thus causing harm to her child." She has "limited tolerance for frustration and a tendency toward emotional outbursts and impulsive actions... [which are] ...