On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Mercer County, Docket No. FG-11-30-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 1, 2009
Before Judges Wefing and Messano.
E.K.B. is the biological mother of V.N.B., who was born on May 6, 2005. She appeals from the trial court judgment terminating her parental rights. After reviewing the record in light of the contentions advanced on appeal, we affirm.*fn1
At the time of V.N.B.'s birth, E.K.B. was staying at Huchet House, a facility for first-time homeless women run by a program known as Home Front. Her father brought E.K.B. to Home Front when she was four and one-half months pregnant. He considered himself too old and ill to care for E.K.B. and a baby.
E.K.B. suffers from significant cognitive deficits, and following V.N.B.'s birth, the staff at Huchet House were concerned about E.K.B.'s ability to care for her baby. She did not, for instance, know when it would be time to feed the baby or to change her unless she received periodic reminders from the staff. The staff created a schedule for E.K.B. to follow, but she could not do so without reminders at the appointed times.
On May 31, 2005, V.N.B. had to be taken to the hospital because she had developed such a severe diaper rash. The program director at Huchet House testified that V.N.B.'s skin was "raw" from the rash.
Huchet House was unable to provide E.K.B. with the round-the-clock assistance she needed, and it eventually notified the Division of Youth and Family Services ("DYFS") of its concerns. After a brief investigation, DYFS removed V.N.B. from E.K.B.'s care on June 9, 2005, and placed her with a foster mother.
V.N.B. has resided with that foster mother since she was approximately one month old, and her foster mother wishes to adopt V.N.B.
At the trial, DYFS presented six witnesses: Elayne I. Weitz, Psy.D.; Alan J. Lee, Psy.D.; Brenda Whitaker, the director of Huchet House at the time of E.K.B.'s stay; and three DYFS employees who had handled various aspects of this matter: Sandra Bishop, Bruce Williams, and Nanette Lieggi. E.K.B. presented one witness, Jonathan Mack, Psy.D. She did not testify herself.
Dr. Weitz performed two bonding evaluations, one in May 2007, and one in March 2008 to assess the attachment between E.K.B. and V.N.B. During the first evaluation, Dr. Weitz observed E.K.B. and V.N.B., together with V.N.B.'s paternal aunt, L.L.J., who DYFS was considering as a potential placement for E.K.B. and V.N.B.*fn2 She described V.N.B. as being "somewhat stiff . . . almost just stoically participating in the assessment."
Dr. Weitz interviewed E.K.B. separately. She testified that she found her to be "somewhat childlike and immature . . . [with] some auditory processing issues, and possibly some question of comprehension . . . ." At one point during the evaluation, V.N.B. became distressed and started to cry. E.K.B. was unable to console her.
Dr. Weitz also testified about her observation of V.N.B. with her foster mother, who brought her two other foster children with her. Dr. Weitz said she observed "a lot of happy, fun playfulness."
Dr. Weitz summarized her conclusions after the first evaluation in the following manner:
The other major piece of that was that I felt that [V.N.B.], who had been in the uninterrupted care of her foster mother for almost two years, would suffer severe and irreparable harm by being removed from her care because the foster mother had become [V.N.B.]'s psychological parent, meaning that she had really fulfilled the role of what we typically expect of a biological parent who brought a child into the world and maintained a relationship, that there was a strong bond between [V.N.B.] and her caretaker, that there was no bond between [V.N.B.] and her birth mother, that -- and the signs that I used to define were that in the birth mother's presence, [V.N.B.] would not relax. She was somewhat tense. She cried. She acted even clingy at times, which I know can sound like she is being affectionate, but really, children who are frightened will cling to almost any adult at times.
And I also find that when children have a strong attachment to a primary caretaker, and have learned that hugs bring consolation, that they know to do that with another adult when they are feeling frightened or distressed.
[V.N.B.] was not comfortable enough to move around. And again, none of the happiness and excitement that I saw in the foster parent evaluation was present in the birth parent evaluation, that it appeared to me that the caseworker was the one who calmed [V.N.B.] down, rather than it being her birth mother.
So I didn't see [E.K.B.] being someone that [V.N.B.] chose to be with, or even had any kind of reaction to by not being in her care.
Dr. Weitz testified about the second bonding evaluation, which she conducted in 2008. Her conclusions were the same. She also performed psychological testing. She found E.K.B. might exaggerate problems, be suspicious of others, and not be inclined to seek help when she needed it. She also found indications of rigidity and that E.K.B. tended to have inflexible views on child rearing. She said V.N.B. never fully relaxed during the evaluation. Dr. ...