On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Salem County, Docket No. FG-17-12-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 13, 2010
Before Judges Stern, Sabatino, and J. N. Harris.
After a four-day Title 30 guardianship trial, the Family Part terminated the parental rights of defendant-appellant M.R. and co-defendant J.H. to the three youngest of their four minor children. M.R., the mother of the children, now appeals the Family Part's decision. J.H. has not appealed. We affirm.
This case stems from ongoing involvement by the Division of Youth and Family Services ("the Division" or "DYFS") that intensified when defendant was pregnant with her first child in 1999, at the age of fifteen. At that time, defendant was living with her nineteen-year-old boyfriend, J.H., at the residence of J.H.'s mother.
Prior to defendant's first pregnancy, the Division had been involved with defendant's own mother, I.R., for a substantial part of defendant's childhood. In particular, the Division had investigated allegations--made by defendant herself--that I.R. was using cocaine, physically abusing her, and not providing her with food. The Division was unable, however, to substantiate these initial allegations about I.R., who continued to have custody of defendant throughout her pregnancy.
Defendant's first child, Mary,*fn1 was born in February 2000, when defendant was only fifteen years old. A year later, in February 2001, the Division filed a verified complaint against I.R. in the Family Part under Docket No. FN-17-45-01, seeking custody, care, and supervision of defendant and of Mary on the grounds of alleged abuse and neglect by I.R. The FN complaint stemmed from a referral to the Division reporting that defendant and Mary were living by themselves, without I.R., at a motel in Carney's Point.
One month later, the Division's complaint was amended to reflect ensuing events of March 21, 2001. On that date, defendant was detained by the police for fighting with another minor. At the time, defendant was four months pregnant with her second child. She was living with a female adult friend and with Mary at a different motel.
As a result of the amended FN complaint, Mary was placed in foster care by the Family Part on March 30, 2001. A week later, defendant was admitted to the Capable Adolescent Mothers Program, sponsored by Crossroads Programs, Inc. ("Crossroads"), in Mount Holly. This residential program provided her with a GED educational program and prenatal care. The program also offered defendant substance abuse treatment, after the staff there had discovered her smoking marijuana on the premises.
In May 2001, J.H. was arrested and incarcerated in Salem County. The following month, June 2001, defendant gave birth to Beth, her second child by J.H. Beth was initially allowed to reside with defendant at Crossroads. A month later, defendant secured full-time employment. Defendant and Beth continued to live at Crossroads and have occasional visits from Mary, who was then nearly two years old. J.H. remained incarcerated.
In January 2002, defendant and both of her daughters moved to the Union Industrial Home for Children ("Union Industrial") in Trenton, a facility that had been recommended by the Division. In March 2002, staff members at the home received complaints from other residents that defendant had struck both Mary and Beth as a method of discipline. Thereafter, in April 2002, staff at the home observed defendant yelling at Mary and threatening to hit her. When the staff members intervened, defendant reportedly told them that "she did not need [s]taff to tell her how to treat her child."
In July 2002, the Division received a call from Union Industrial notifying them that Mary "had bruises on her face." Defendant denied any knowledge of the origins of these bruises and the Division was never able to determine their source.
Defendant reached the age of majority in October 2002. Consequently, at a scheduled compliance review in the original FN docket on December 18, 2002, the Family Part terminated the Division's custody, care, and supervision of defendant, because she was no longer a minor. A new case was simultaneously opened under the same FN docket number, in which the court granted the Division custody, care, and supervision of Mary and Beth. Defendant remained housed, along with her two daughters, at Union Industrial.
Throughout her residence at Union Industrial, defendant attended school at New Jersey Youth Corps, seeking to attain a GED. For a portion of her residency there, defendant worked full-time, and she received positive performance ratings at her job.
In June 2003, the staff at Union Industrial wrote to the Division and reported deficiencies in defendant's parenting abilities. In that letter, the staff expressed concern "about the safety of [Mary] and [Beth] if left solely in [defendant's] care," and recommended that defendant "continue to receive support services upon discharge[.]" In particular, the letter noted that, in June 2003, staff had heard defendant yell, "[w]hen I get out of here [Union Industrial] I will be able to beat [Mary's] a** because you all won't be around to say anything." Additionally, the letter alluded to several instances when defendant had left both daughters awake and unsupervised in her room while she remained downstairs. Defendant also had disappeared along with her friends for nearly an hour while attending her school's prom. When she returned, defendant exhibited signs of intoxication and the staff at Union Industrial suspected that she had been using drugs.
On July 1, 2003, defendant and her daughters left Union Industrial and moved into independent housing. At some point prior to this relocation, J.H. was released from prison and he began again to visit with defendant and the daughters.
An order from the Family Part dated August 27, 2003 transferred custody of both Mary and Beth to defendant. Pursuant to that order, defendant was required to undergo in-home parenting skills training and daycare provided by the Division. Defendant thereafter participated in and completed the Parent Education Program from December 2003 through February 2004, during which time she was pregnant with her third child.
During a January 15, 2004 visit with defendant and the children, a Division caseworker learned that J.H. was then in drug rehabilitation. The rehabilitation had been ordered by the Criminal Part as a result of J.H. having violated his probation. J.H. also failed to appear at a court-ordered psychological examination and parenting assessment that had been scheduled in February 2004.
Meanwhile, defendant continued working, with Mary and Beth being cared for during the workday at First Step Daycare. Throughout this period, defendant was employed at a hotel in Pennsville, but she was usually home with her children by 4:00 p.m.
In March 2004, defendant gave birth to Kelly, her third child with J.H. Consequently, Kelly was added to the FN litigation. The court granted custody of the three children to defendant, while care and supervision of them remained with the Division.
In April 2004, the staff of First Step Daycare called the Division to complain about the girls' recent absence from the program. Another telephone call two weeks later alerted the Division that Mary's and Beth's participation in the program was at risk of termination because of their lack of attendance. The Division then received a letter from the New Jersey "Cares for Kids" Child Care Certificate Program, notifying the Division that Mary's and Beth's participation in the program had indeed terminated as of May 31, 2004.
On June 9, 2004, a Division caseworker visiting defendant's apartment found J.H. and his mother there, looking after the three children. J.H. informed the caseworker that "he was the one watching the children during the day."
By July 1, 2004, defendant had been discharged from her job at the Hampton Inn. On the same day, the Division caseworker visited the home, only to find five adults and a number of children at the apartment, none of whom were defendant or her own children. Later that day, the caseworker caught up with defendant and reminded her that J.H. was not permitted to watch the children unless he was supervised.
A visit by the caseworker a month later found defendant living in the apartment with all three children. According to defendant, her brother and J.H.'s sister were assisting her with the childcare. At the time, defendant was still unemployed and looking for work. At some point in July 2004, defendant obtained temporary employment at a motel in Hammonton, but she only worked there until mid-August 2004.
In August and September 2004, the Division attempted three times to schedule substance abuse evaluations for J.H, but he failed to attend for any of them. Additionally, the Division scheduled psychological evaluations for both defendant and J.H. in October 2004.
More problems arose in the latter part of 2004. Beginning on August 23, 2004, defendant rescheduled or failed to attend the Division caseworker's visits to her home on four separate occasions. In early September 2004, all three children were readmitted to First Steps Daycare. The Division's caseworker visited the daycare center on September 9, 2004, attempting to speak with defendant about rescheduling her visit to defendant's home, but defendant had already left after dropping off the children. The caseworker instead spoke with Mary and Beth, now four and three years old, respectively. The girls informed the caseworker that J.H. had been frequently present in the home and that their mother was pregnant again.
On September 15, 2004, the Division's caseworker finally succeeded in visiting defendant at her residence. Defendant falsely denied that she was pregnant. She told the caseworker that her job search was going well, and that she believed that she would be employed soon. The caseworker observed J.H.'s sister and brother in the home during the visit and noticed J.H. picking up his sister from the home at the end of the visit. The caseworker again warned defendant that leaving the children with unapproved adults could result in their removal.
On September 20, 2004, the Division received information that defendant had left the children alone with J.H., despite repeated warnings from the court and the Division not to do so. The Division also received reports of arrests and disorderly conduct on the part of both J.H. and defendant.
As a result of these events, the Division filed an amended complaint in the FN matter, this time naming M.R. in place of I.R. as the defendant. Upon considering the complaint, the court granted the Division custody of the children. All three children were removed from defendant's residence and placed by the Division in foster homes on September 21, 2004. Mary and Beth were placed in one home, while Kelly was placed in a different home. At the time of this removal, Mary was four years old, Beth was three years old, and Kelly was twenty-five weeks old.
On October 5, 2004, Roger T. Barr, Ed.D., a licensed psychologist, performed a court-ordered psychological examination of defendant. Dr. Barr found that defendant exhibited "a pattern of personality functioning characterized [by the] need for excitement, involvement in short-term and immediate endeavors[,] and an over-exaggerated sense of self-worth." Dr. Barr also noted that "since [defendant] places her needs in priority to others, and does not adequately understand the implications of her conduct, the emotional and physical safety of the children become[s] compromised." He recommended that defendant undergo structured therapy and interventions from Family Preservation Services. In sum, Dr. Barr concluded that "the results of this [p]sychological [e]valuation do not support reunification [of defendant] with her children at this time. Return of the children is predicated upon her changes in therapy."
Over the next two months, defendant had semi-weekly visits arranged with her three children. Several times defendant failed to appear at the scheduled visitation hours, despite the caseworker being present at the Division's office with the children ready to see their mother. On October 7, 2004, the Division caseworker called the apartment manager at defendant's residence, who informed her that the defendant "has been partying non-stop since Thursday [September 30, 2004]." The manager indicated that he was considering "eviction or taking legal action for disturbing [the] rest of the neighbors."
On December 7, 2004, defendant attended a substance abuse assessment. During that assessment, defendant claimed to have only once drank a beer at the age of eighteen and to have smoked marijuana only twice, when she was fifteen. Although the assessment did not find that defendant met the criteria for substance abuse or dependence based on her self-reporting, it did find that she had "been less than truthful in her reporting as indicated by collateral information from caseworker and police reports." The assessment noted that defendant, despite her contrary protestation, "has a history of substance abuse" and had been arrested on at least one occasion for disorderly conduct and defiant trespassing. The report also indicated that defendant, who was below the legal drinking age at the time of the assessment, had been seen at a local bar, at which she had an encounter with a law enforcement officer.
Consequently, the substance abuse assessment recommended that defendant participate in "Level I outpatient treatment, along with AA/NA meetings." Defendant was thereafter scheduled to attend the daytime substance abuse treatment program at Maryville in Salem County for one-hour weekly group sessions.
The day after the substance abuse assessment, the Division caseworker called defendant's apartment manager again and inquired about her status. The apartment manager asserted that there had been no change since October, and that the "[s]ame crew of about twelve people comes b[y] each weekend."
A week later, on December 15, 2004, the Family Part held a fact-finding hearing in the FN litigation. Neither defendant nor J.H. appeared.*fn2 At that hearing, based on the testimony of a Division supervisor, the court found, by a preponderance of evidence, that: on September 20, 2004, the Division received information that both [defendant] and [J.H.] were arrested in June of 2004 and September 6, 2004 for trespassing and disorderly conduct involving disagreements between the parties and or behavior by [defendant] interfering with the arrest of [J.H.] and the arrests were made in the vicinity of the complex in which [defendant] resided with the children, [and] the children expressed familiarity with the arrests[.]
The trial court found that defendant had permitted J.H. unsupervised contact with the children on numerous occasions in violation of court orders. The court determined that "such behavior would place the physical, mental[,] and emotional condition of the children to be in imminent danger of being impaired as a result of the parent or guardian failing to exercise a minimum degree of care as to both the mother and father."
In its order of December 15, 2004, the Family Part continued legal custody, care, and supervision of all three children with the Division, and physical custody with their respective foster parents. The court further directed random urine screenings for both parents, as well as substance abuse treatment. Finally, the court ordered weekly supervised visitation for defendant and J.H. with their children, to be held at the Division's offices.
In April 2005, defendant began attending the weekly substance abuse treatment program at Maryville. As of June 9, 2005, she had attended that program regularly and had an initial anticipated discharge date in August 2005. However, on July 29, 2005, defendant's counselor at Maryville sent a letter informing the Division that defendant was not yet ready for discharge. She was due to finish treatment on September 23, 2005 if she were to regularly attend group meetings until then. Progress reports for July, August, September, and October 2005 from Maryville indicated that defendant's attendance at substance abuse sessions was sporadic. The reports indicated that she "feels that she has no problem. DYFS [according to defendant] is the problem." On October 28, 2005, defendant was administratively discharged from Maryville's program for lack of attendance.
Meanwhile, in July 2005, defendant gave birth to John, her fourth child. Once again, J.H. was the father. John had previously been added to the FN litigation, but the Division was not notified of his actual birth until six days later, when the caseworker made a field visit to defendant's home to speak to her about her non-attendance at Maryville.
When the caseworker arrived at the residence, she found defendant, J.H., and a program staff member who was there to facilitate defendant's weekly visits with the children. Also present were all three daughters and the newborn infant, John. The caseworker informed defendant and J.H. that John could be removed from their custody because neither parent had complied with their assigned substance abuse treatments. J.H. then became agitated and began to yell at the caseworker. The caseworker retreated from the home and called her supervisor. Her supervisor advised the caseworker to notify the Human Services Police, instructing that "the newborn baby must be removed due to non-compliance with services and the Division's suspicions that [J.H.] resides in the home."
That same day, John was removed from defendant's custody. He was initially placed in a different foster home than those in which his sisters had been placed.*fn3 Two days later, the Family Part entered an order to show cause for protective services with DYFS custody for John, establishing an August 3, 2005 return date for a hearing to determine his continuing custody, care, and supervision. On that return date, custody, care, and supervision of all four children was continued with the Division, with weekly supervised visitation permitted for both defendant and J.H. Additionally, defendant ...