On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Hunterdon County, Docket No. FN-10-133-08.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Waugh, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued Telephonically November 6, 2009
Before Judges Cuff, Payne and Waugh.
Plaintiff R.M. appeals the order of the Family Part denying her application for the entry of a "suspended judgment" as the disposition of the complaint filed by plaintiff New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (Division) charging her with child neglect as defined by N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21. This appeal requires us to determine (1) the criteria for application of the "suspended judgment" provision of N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.51(a)(1); and (2) whether successful completion of a period of suspended judgment necessarily leads to the removal of the underlying finding of abuse or neglect from the central registry maintained by the Division pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.11.
We discern the following factual background from the documents in the record, no testimony having been taken in connection with this matter.
R.M. and J.L. are the parents of two minor children, C.L., who was born in February 2008, and I.L., who was born in October 2006. R.M. is also the mother of I.T., who was born in January 2003.*fn1 R.M. was employed as a child care worker at a pre-school when the underlying incident occurred.
On May 10, 2008, Raritan Township Police Officer Matthew H. Lawrence investigated a report that there was a domestic disturbance at R.M.'s residence in Flemington. When Lawrence arrived at the residence, J.L. was in front of the home, holding I.L. R.M. was running around the front yard holding C.L., who was in his car seat at the time. J.L. was apparently attempting to prevent R.M. from driving with the children in her car.
R.M. told Lawrence that J.L. had attacked her, but Lawrence observed no injuries on R.M. However, Lawrence observed a laceration on J.L.'s nose, which J.L. maintained had been caused by R.M.
Lawrence determined that R.M. and J.L. were highly intoxicated. R.M. took a breathalyzer test, which showed that she was "significantly" over the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle. N.J.S.A. 39:4-50. She was placed under arrest for simple assault and taken to police headquarters. The police notified the Division, as required by N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10.
The Division responded and conducted interviews with R.M., J.L., and the children. During their interviews, R.M. and J.L. confirmed that they had been caring for C.L. and I.L. when the altercation occurred and that they had been drinking. R.M. denied using cocaine, but J.L. stated that both of them had used cocaine that evening. R.M. subsequently admitted to cocaine use.
After the interviews, R.M. and J.L. agreed to a "Safety Protection Plan" in which the Division placed the children, including I.T., in the care of their respective paternal grandparents. Following the Division's recommendations, R.M. and J.L. completed substance abuse evaluations on May 13, 2008. The evaluations recommended that they both receive outpatient treatment.
The Division filed a verified complaint for custody and sought emergent relief on May 19, 2008. The Family Part judge granted the emergent relief that day. She found that the children's welfare was at risk because of the allegations that R.M. and J.L. used cocaine and engaged in domestic violence while caring for the children. She granted custody to the Division, ordered that the children remain in the care of their respective paternal grandparents, and granted "liberal," but supervised, visitation to all three of the children's parents. The order also required that R.M. and J.L. complete risk assessments, undergo substance abuse treatment, and submit to random urine screenings.
On June 19, 2008, the return date of the Division's order to show cause, the judge entered an order continuing the Division's custody of the children. The order also required that R.M. and J.L. complete their risk assessments, and continue with substance abuse treatment and urine screenings.
On July 29, 2008, R.M. and J.L. underwent risk assessments with Catholic Charities. The assessments revealed that both J.L. and R.M. had histories of occasional marijuana and cocaine use. J.L. asserted that, except for the night of the incident, he was no longer using drugs. R.M. asserted that she stopped using marijuana once she became pregnant, and had occasionally used cocaine at social events. The examiner recommended that R.M. and J.L. complete their substance abuse programs and follow the recommendations of their counselors; and that they continue with random urine screenings. The examiner also recommended that they take couples counseling to improve family relations. The assessments concluded that R.M. and J.L. presented a "moderate to low risk to their children," and that returning the children might be appropriate upon the couple's successful completion of the prescribed treatment and counseling.
On August 21, 2008, the judge returned physical and legal custody of the children to R.M. and J.L., but authorized the Division to maintain care and supervision of the children. She also permitted the Division to make unannounced home visits. The order further required that R.M. and J.L. continue to adhere to the recommendations set forth in their respective risk assessments.
At a September 18, 2008, hearing before a different Family Part judge, R.M. and J.L. each waived their right to a factfinding hearing and admitted to having used drugs and alcohol at the time they were caring for C.L. and I.L. They each stipulated that their conduct put the children at risk of harm. Based upon their sworn admissions, the judge found that R.M. and J.L. had "knowingly, willingly and voluntarily" admitted to acts of child neglect. The judge entered an order keeping the children in the custody of R.M. and J.L., but also continuing the Division's oversight.
At the September 18 hearing, R.M. requested that the judge enter a "suspended judgment" in her case. R.M.'s ultimate goal in doing so was to have her name removed from the Division's central registry, N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.11, because of the adverse effects on employment and other consequences of such inclusion. See N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. J.L., 410 N.J. Super. 159, 170 (App. Div. 2009); N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. S.S., 372 N.J. Super. 13, 27 (App. Div. 2004), certif. denied, 182 N.J. 426 (2005). The Division opposed such a disposition and requested ...