On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Passaic County, FG-16-97-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 20, 2010
Before Judges Wefing, Grall and Messano.
T.G. and M.G. are the mother and father of M.G., Jr., who was born in August 2005, and J.G., who was born in December 2006. T.G. was sixteen when M.G., Jr. was born, and M.G. was seventeen. The children were removed from their parents' care in March 2007. Since that time the children have lived with a foster family that intends to adopt them. On February 25, 2009, a judgment terminating the parental rights of T.G. and M.G. was entered.
The parents' separate appeals from the judgment of termination have been consolidated, and are opposed by the Division of Youth and Family Services (Division) and the children's law guardian. Because the judgments are supported by evidence clearly and convincingly establishing that termination of the parents' rights is in the best interest of their children, as defined in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a, we affirm. In re Guardianship of J.N.H., 172 N.J. 440, 472 (2002).
After T.G.'s mother died in 2003, her father took T.G. and her younger brother and sister into his home in New Jersey. Allegations of abuse were reported to the Division in July and September 2003, but the Division found them to be unsubstantiated.
By the fall of 2004, T.G. had met and developed a relationship with M.G. that was sufficiently tumultuous to bring them to the attention of the juvenile justice system. T.G. was charged with an act of delinquency for conduct that would constitute the crime of unlawful possession of a weapon, a knife, which she claimed she carried to defend herself against a threat of attack from M.G. While released pending disposition of that charge, T.G. engaged in conduct that led to a second charge, terroristic threats directed against M.G. The charge of unlawful possession of a weapon was reduced to disorderly conduct - creating a hazardous condition, N.J.S.A. 2C:33-2a(2), and the State dismissed the charge for terroristic threats. On October 20, 2004, T.G. was placed on probation, required to attend counseling to be arranged by Girlstown and restrained from having any contact with M.G.
T.G. did not comply with the conditions of her probation. As a consequence, in December 2004 her probationary term was extended. In March 2005, T.G.'s continued non-compliance and concerns about her father's drug use and his failure to provide her with adequate supervision led the judge to order an assessment of T.G.'s needs and an investigation of her home.
The judge's action ultimately led to a diagnosis of T.G.'s pregnancy and an adjustment disorder with disturbance of conduct. Ruthann McGoldrick, M.S., NCC, LPC, assessed T.G.'s condition. In addition to T.G.'s possible pregnancy, she noted these circumstances contributing to the then fifteen-year-old's stress - the recent death of T.G.'s mother and problems related to the legal system, education and social supports. McGoldrick recommended individual and family therapy, a complete physical and, if warranted, pre-natal care. McGoldrick also identified barriers to T.G.'s rehabilitation: demonstrated reluctance to participate in a structured program; lack of supervision at home; a poor relationship with her father; and her continued contact with M.G. In McGoldrick's view, if T.G. was pregnant, then continuation of the restraint against contact with M.G. would "create greater stress."
By March 16, 2005, T.G.'s pregnancy was confirmed and her father's drug screen was positive for cocaine and alcohol. Although the Division reported favorably on the conditions in T.G.'s home, her progress in school and her relationship with her father, the judge revised the terms of her probation. The restraint against contact with M.G. was terminated; T.G. was released to the custody of M.G.'s mother; and the Division was appointed as her guardian ad litem. Due to the results of his drug test, T.G.'s father was directed to cooperate with the Division's recommendations.
Shortly after T.G. took up residence with M.G. and his mother, on April 4, 2005, M.G.'s mother took T.G. to the hospital. She reported that M.G. had "punched [T.G.] in the head" and the "stomach." She was bruised and had blood in her urine. M.G.'s mother was concerned; they were arguing constantly. A caseworker from the Division came to the hospital to investigate, but T.G. attributed the blood in her urine to an infection, refused to cooperate and left the hospital. A caseworker interviewed T.G.'s father and, apparently unaware of the terms of T.G.'s probation placing her with M.G.'s mother, wrote a "case plan" under which T.G.'s father agreed to provide a safe, secure and drug-free home for T.G.
On April 11, 2005, the judge modified the terms of T.G.'s probation to require her placement in "Great Expectations" - a program for teenage mothers. The record does not indicate when T.G. was admitted to "Great Expectations," but she left the program. As a consequence, in June 2005 the judge again modified the terms of T.G.'s probation. The restraint against contact with M.G. was reinstated, and domestic violence counseling was ordered.
T.G.'s father made efforts to place T.G. with his parents. On July 21, 2005, T.G.'s probation was terminated on the condition that she move to Puerto Rico and reside with her grandparents. T.G. went to Puerto Rico, but she returned to New Jersey before giving birth to M.G., Jr. in August 2005.
The Division's records reflect no contact with T.G. during the period between June and September 2005, but it is apparent that by September 13, 2005, T.G. and M.G., Jr. were again living with M.G. and his mother. On September 13, M.G.'s mother asked the Division for assistance, reporting that M.G. had attacked T.G. and their newborn son with scissors. In the absence of evidence of any injury, however, the Division concluded that the risk to the child was low and did not intervene.
Weeks later, there was another incident. On October 7, 2005, M.G. assaulted T.G., leaving "marks and bruises." T.G. obtained a temporary restraining order, and the police accompanied her when she went to M.G.'s mother's home to retrieve her belongings. When the police and T.G. arrived, she "went directly to the bedroom," walked over to M.G., Jr.'s crib, pulled out a bag and handed it to the officer. The bag contained "cookies" of crack cocaine, which the officer explained are large bulks of crack cocaine before they are cut up into smaller pieces. It also contained a prescription drug bottle that held "little baggies" with smaller pieces of crack cocaine. M.G. was charged in a juvenile complaint alleging possession of a controlled dangerous substance and simple assault and ultimately ordered to participate in the Future Lives Initiative Program (FLIP) - a program that offers educational and vocational training, individual therapy, group counseling, life-skills, substance abuse awareness, behavior reviews and "Aggression Replacement Training." These were not M.G.'s first charges; he had prior adjudications for delinquency based upon unlawful possession of a weapon and joyriding.
According to the arresting officer, if T.G. had not produced the drugs he would not have found them. In his opinion, T.G. knew exactly where they were hidden. Although M.G. admitted that the cocaine was his, while the officer was present M.G. confronted T.G. He asked her why she was "ratting [him] out" and warned, "Wait until I get out."
Following that incident, the Division determined that M.G. and T.G. neglected M.G., Jr. by exposing him to domestic violence and having drugs in his crib, and opened a child welfare investigation. M.G.'s mother explained that her son did not use drugs but had gotten involved as a seller to make money. T.G. and M.G. later repeated that description of M.G.'s involvement with drugs; nothing in the record indicates that M.G. ever used drugs. The Division closed the case in February 2006, when T.G. and M.G., Jr. were placed in the custody of T.G.'s older sister, who lives in Staten Island.
T.G. did not stay with her sister. She and M.G., Jr. returned to New Jersey, and she resumed her relationship with M.G. On December 13, 2006, T.G. gave birth to their second child, J.G.
On January 12, 2007, M.G.'s FLIP counselor contacted the Division with concerns about the newborn. The counselor reported that M.G., by way of explaining his late arrival, had said the infant had been crying and T.G. was yelling "shut up" and bouncing the child roughly. When the Division's caseworker arrived at M.G.'s home, he and his mother said that T.G. had moved and they were not sure where she was living. M.G. said his FLIP counselor must have misunderstood him, and he assured the caseworker that T.G. was taking good care of the children.
Although the Division concluded that there was no evidence to substantiate a new incident of abuse or neglect, it also determined that child protective and permanency services were warranted. On February 23, 2007, T.G., M.G. and his mother met with a caseworker. They agreed to cooperate with the Division's efforts to provide services. The plan was for T.G. and the children to live with M.G. and his mother.
The Division's plan changed after another incident. In March 2007, T.G. left the home, went to her sister in Staten Island but returned to New Jersey and reported that M.G. had beaten her and taken $800. Around the same time, a neighbor advised the Division that over the past several weeks there had been arguments involving yelling, screaming, cursing, banging and hitting. M.G. was arrested on a delinquency complaint charging conduct that would amount to robbery if he were an adult. He was also charged with a violation of his probation. Although T.G. subsequently tried to drop the charges and attended M.G.'s court hearing with their children, the delinquency case was not dismissed.
On March 13, 2007, the Division removed the children from the home of M.G.'s mother due to the imminent risk of harm from continued exposure to domestic violence in the event of M.G.'s release. On March 14, 2007, the Division filed a complaint alleging abuse and neglect and on March 15, 2007 the Division filed an order to show cause to obtain custody, care and supervision of the children. The court placed the children in the Division's care and directed the Division to provide - and the parents to accept - specified services. The children were examined by a doctor. They were in need of immunization but no medical problems other than colds and diaper rash were detected, and they were treated without the need for prescription medication. The children were placed in the same foster home.
In April 2007, M.G. pled guilty to a violation of probation and, on the charge of robbery, to a lesser charge of criminal mischief. His probation was extended, and he was released on the condition that he complete FLIP, receive domestic violence counseling and have no contact with T.G. By June 12, 2007, however, M.G.'s probation was terminated because he had tampered with his monitoring bracelet. At that time, when M.G., Jr. was twenty-two months old and J.G. was six months old and had been with the foster parents for about three months, their father was sentenced to the custody of the Juvenile Justice Commission and ultimately placed in a residential program.
The initial evaluations of these young parents, which were conducted pursuant to the court's order of March 15, 2007, assessed their respective needs. They had different problems to overcome.
M.G. was evaluated for substance abuse on May 1, 2007. He provided this information about his background. He had completed the ninth grade, never had a job, did not have a driver's license or a high school diploma and relied upon others for his support. Consistent with his negative drug screen, M.G. denied use of drugs or alcohol. He admitted, however, that he had sold drugs in the past, had prior arrests for possession of a firearm and drugs and acknowledged having a difficult relationship with the mother of his children.*fn1 Nonetheless, he stated that he did not view education, vocational training or counseling as important.
Dr. James F. Battaglia assessed M.G.'s psychological condition. M.G. acknowledged a suspension from school for arguing with other students that was imposed when he was only eleven years old, an arrest for joyriding when he was only fourteen and seeing a counselor for a year because of his "attitude in school." Nonetheless, M.G. said he "never really had a temper" and denied all reported ...