On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, Docket No. FG-07-236-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 21, 2010
Before Judges Stern, Graves and Sabatino.
Defendant J.K., the biological mother of twin daughters ("V.A.K." and "V.E.K."), appeals from a final judgment of guardianship terminating her parental rights pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1a. The judgment resulted from a trial in the Family Part conducted over six intermittent days in May and June 2008. We affirm.
The trial proofs established the following pertinent facts and circumstances. Defendant gave birth to the twins in April 2006. Because the twins were born prematurely and each weighed less than two pounds at birth, they remained in the hospital for three months. Shortly after V.A.K.'s birth, physicians determined that she needed heart surgery. Defendant declined*fn1 to consent to the surgery, which prompted the Division of Youth and Family Services ("the Division" or "DYFS") to obtain custody of V.A.K., and the surgery was performed.
At the time of the twins' birth, defendant was married to a man named L.G. However, L.G. was excluded as the twins' biological father by a paternity test, and his name does not appear on the twins' birth certificate.*fn2
Defendant has suffered for years from mental illness, including an uncontested diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. She has been hospitalized on multiple occasions. Her mental health condition and other circumstances evidently led to defendant having difficulty in caring for her four older children, who were born in January 1988, March 1991, January 1993, and January 2001, respectively.
The Division's first referral concerning defendant occurred in April 1991, when it received a report that she was neglecting her two oldest children. Several other referrals ensued. Some were against defendant, others were reported by defendant against J.B., defendant's mother. However, the Division apparently made no substantiated findings of abuse or neglect regarding those particular referrals.
Ultimately, pursuant to a series of orders of the Family Part that preceded the current litigation, J.B. obtained custody of the four older children under a Kinship Legal Guardianship ("KLG") proceeding, under N.J.S.A. 3B:12A-1 to -7. The four older children have remained in J.B.'s care since that time.*fn3
In June 2006, a hospital staff member reported to a Division caseworker that defendant did not appear to comprehend the twins' needs or medical conditions. For example, defendant inappropriately brought the twins "stage one" baby food, even though they were still being tube fed.
When the twins were released from the hospital in July 2006, they were initially placed with a cousin of defendant, who was also a licensed foster parent. The twins were not placed with defendant because of her ongoing mental health issues and because the Division believed that defendant was not taking her medications. Also at that time, J.B. was not considered a placement option, due to the limited size of her own residence and her care of defendant's other four children.
In March 2007, J.B. obtained larger accommodations. Consequently, the twins joined their four older half-siblings at J.B.'s new residence. The twins have continuously resided with J.B. since that time. Defendant has frequently visited with them there, and at other locations.
During the next several years, defendant underwent numerous psychiatric evaluations. In June 2006, Dr. Adrien Coblentz, a psychiatrist with the Irvington Counseling Center, diagnosed defendant with Axis I Paranoid Schizophrenia (Axis II deferred). Dr. Coblentz found that defendant would not serve as a competent parent for her children.
Subsequently, in October 2006, defendant was evaluated by another psychiatrist, Dr. Carla C. Hardy. Dr. Hardy diagnosed defendant with, among other things, Axis I Schizophrenia and Anxiety Disorder NOS (Not Otherwise Specified). Dr. Hardy recommended that defendant obtain individual counseling. In such counseling, Dr. Hardy recommended that defendant address her identity issues, as well as her mental and emotional stressors, both real and unreal. Dr. Hardy also recommended defendant's participation in cognitive behavioral and reality therapy, and that defendant be made subject to periodic psychiatric monitoring.
Another psychiatric evaluation of defendant was performed by Dr. Morton Friedman in November 2006. Dr. Friedman perceived defendant's overall presentation as being consistent with a diagnosis of chronic paranoid schizophrenia. He opined that defendant was not fit to parent the twins because of her documented mental health history and her current condition.
In August 2007, defendant was evaluated by Dr. Sonia Oquendo, also a psychiatrist. Dr. Oquendo found that defendant has "paranoid delusions and her illness has impacted her functioning in society and her capacity to parent her children." Additionally, Dr. Oquendo observed that defendant is ...